All I Want for Christmas: An FCPX Pro Editor’s Buying Guide

A lot has changed tech-wise in the last couple years when it comes to post-production needs. Things you used to think you needed to edit a movie (a giant, souped-up Mac Pro tower with a large, convoluted RAID system), are no longer necessary. So what exactly do you need nowadays to really get stuff done? Well, I run a full-on FCPX/DaVinci Resolve setup now in a couple different configurations at my company, We Make Movies: Post. It’s definitely not your traditional pro edit setup at this point, but I’m able to get in and out of FCPX and DaVinci Resolve in 4k by simply using a MacBook Pro and a Thunderbolt Drive. Times have changed. In any case, I’m going to center this particular buying guide around a Final Cut Pro X workflow (laugh if you want, but while you’re doing that, I will continue to deliver projects to happy clients faster than I ever have before). I’ve broken this guide down into various tiers for different budget and experience levels, going from basic to top of the line.

Basic FCPX Edit setup
Ideal for: Assistant editors; as a secondary computer for DIY shops on a budget who plan to finish only in FCPX and deliver to the web; and students.
Limitations: You can’t use DaVinci Resolve with this setup due to graphics card limitations. However, FCPX and Motion Performance are fantastic.

Gear Rundown:
1. Mac Mini upgraded to 16 gigs RAM: I have a new Mac Mini in my shop and I’m kind of blown away by it. It runs FCPX and Motion better than my old Mac Pro ever did. If you’re finishing in FCPX, it’s all you really need computer-wise. However, the important thing is you MUST upgrade to 16 gigs of RAM for this particular setup. FCPX is a RAM hog, and anything less than 12 is going to cause problems. Speaking of RAM, this is one of the few Macs that allows you to swap in 3rd party RAM. In my opinion Apple seriously overprices their RAM, so I recommend buying the Mac Mini at a non-Apple store. Ask them to get you cheaper RAM and install it for you to save some cash.
Tech Specs: 2.3GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7, 16GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM – 2x8GB, 1TB Fusion Drive, Apple keyboard with numeric keypad
Cost: $1,398.99 from the Apple Store
2. Apple Thunderbolt Display: Yeah, it’s expensive. But it’s worth it, if for no other reason than all of the extra ports that come on the back of the display (Ethernet, FW800, Thunderbolt, and 3 USB 3.0). If you want to connect any Thunderbolt devices to your Mac Mini and still have a monitor, you sort of need this, as this monitor is pretty much the only one on the market that allows you to daisy chain them through it. The Mac Mini only has one built in Thunderbolt port, so unless you want to run your primary display through the HDMI port (I don’t recommend this), you should get one. Don’t worry, these are well calibrated out of the box, making it easy to do color work for web delivery. You also won’t need to get a second display because the screen is large enough to run FCPX comfortably in a single monitor setup.
Cost: $999.00
3. Lacie Thunderbolt eSata Hub: You’ll need this for non-Thunderbolt workflows because most clients aren’t using Thunderbolt drives. Firewire 800 isn’t really fast enough anymore, so eSata is the way to go if you can’t use Thunderbolt.
Cost: $199
4. Thunderbolt G-RAID: For ideal performance, I recommend getting one of these or a comparable Lacie Drive. They range from 4-8TB.
Cost: $599-799.95
5. Thunderbolt Cables: For some reason (probably to trick you into thinking that their products cost less than they actually do), Thunderbolt cables are never included with any of their products. Because of this, any Thunderbolt product you buy is probably going to cost you $50 more than you originally thought it would if you actually want to attach it to your computer.
Cost: $49 (you’ll need at least two of these for the hard drive and eSata hub).
6. Audio: At the minimum, you’ll need at least a solid pair of headphones and, ideally, some near-field monitor speakers. Grado, Sennheiser, and Audio Technica all make some good ones. You should probably spend at least $70; my top recommendation would be the Grado SR80i for $95. Also, if you plan to edit with clients present, you should invest in some near-field speakers. I’m no audio expert, but there are a million great products from a whole bunch of manufacturers; the bottom line is that you can get a really nice pair for $300-600 and be really happy.
Cost: Headphones: $70+, Speakers: $300-600
7. Software: You’ll need a copy of FCPX, Motion, and Compressor.
Cost: About $400 for all three programs

Total Cost For Setup: $3,770-4,600 (plus tax)

Medium-sized portable setup for on-set/home 1080p web delivery
Ideal for: People who need a mobile edit station with few performance compromises.

Gear Rundown:
1. 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro: These are just plain awesome. It’s really unbelievable how much you can do with a MacBook Pro these days. This little laptop, if configured properly, can now deliver a full 4k RED feature and also double as an onset edit station. These are, in many ways, faster than a Mac Pro, which is ridiculous when you think about it. If you’re budget conscious, you don’t have to get a Retina, but for me, it’s worth the money.
Tech Specs: 2.6GHz Quad-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz, 16GB 1600MHz DDR3L SDRAM, 512GB Flash Storage (This is my ideal configuration for price and performance)
Cost: $2999.00
2. Thunderbolt Display: If you want to really edit from home with this, you’ll want one of these for a bunch of reasons. First off, you won’t get Ethernet or a FW800 port (neither of these come with the MacBook Pro) and, eventually you’ll find yourself running out of USB ports (Macbooks only have 2). Not only that, but the 15-inch laptop screen just isn’t large enough to work effectively for long and in depth edit sessions. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine for on-set stuff, but anything else and you’ll find yourself wanting a second monitor. So, if you’re going to spring for an additional monitor, you might as well get one that gives you more ports to work with.
Cost: 999.00
3. Lacie eSata Hub (see basic config): $199.00
4. Thunderbolt G-RAID (see basic config): $599-799.00
5. Thunderbolt Cables (see basic config): $100 (You need two for this)
6. Audio (see basic config): Headphones: $70+, Speakers: $300-600
7. Software: Everything from the basic config and, if you want, you can run DaVinci Resolve from your laptop. The lite version is free and allows for nearly full functionality along with the ability to deliver anything at 1080 resolution or smaller.
Cost: $400

Total Cost: $5370-6170

Medium-sized home setup for 1080 broadcast delivery
Ideal for: People who want to setup a really nice and extremely fast 1080-centric home and/or office finishing station.

Gear Rundown:
1. The New iMac: The bottom line is that I really want one of these. And, honestly, with the new iMac, you don’t really need a Mac Pro for anything anymore. That is, if you get a couple add-ons that I’ll list. Technically you can’t get one of these yet, but you can configure one at the Apple store with a 3-4 week wait for it to ship.
Tech Specs: 27 inch 3.2GHz Quad-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz 32GB 1600MHz DDR3 SDRAM – 4x8GB, 3TB Fusion Drive NVIDIA GeForce GTX 680MX 2GB GDDR5
Cost: $3,149.00
2. Broadcast Monitor (DreamColor): The cool thing about the DreamColor Monitor is its versatility for a relatively cheap price. They work great as broadcast monitors when configured properly. You can also use it as a second computer display through DVI or DisplayPort. However, they’re a pain to set up. Once you do, though, there’s nothing that touches it from a price or performance perspective. (Full disclosure: it’s easier to set up if you want a traditional broadcast monitor. Flanders Scientific makes good ones, but you’ll also need a couple add-ons if you want to get it to work with Resolve and your Blackmagic card.)
Monitor Cost: $2350
DreamColor Advanced Profiling Solution (for calibration):
Cost: $273.26
AJA HDP2 mini converter and HDLink Pro 3D DisplayPort This allows you to convert the SDI signal from your Blackmagic card to something Dreamcolor can handle.
Cost: $470.25
For more info on what to do and how to get it set up, go here.
Cost of Dreamcolor: 3090
Cost of Flanders Scientific LM-2461W: $4995
3. Blackmagic Ultrastudio 4k (soon) or Ultrastudio 3D (now): Make sure you get the Thunderbolt versions of these. Basically, these let you connect to pretty much any kind of monitor and get a broadcast signal (and you won’t need a PCI-E card anymore). Just remember, only Blackmagic cards work with Resolve.
Cost: $1295
4. Lacie eSata Hub (see basic config):
Cost: $199.00
5. Thunderbolt G-RAID (see basic config):
Cost: $599-799.00
6. Thunderbolt Cables (see basic config):
Cost: $100 (you need two)
7. Audio (see basic config): Headphones: $70+, near-field speakers:
Cost: $300-600
8. Software: Everything from the basic configuration, plus DaVinci Resolve. The lite version is free and will allow you nearly full functionality along with the ability to deliver anything at 1080 resolution or smaller.
Cost: $400

Total Cost: $9100-11,600

Top of the line for 4k Resolve delivery

Ideal For: Being able to do whatever you want, however you want, in whatever resolution you want. For this setup, get everything from the medium-sized 1080 broadcast delivery, listed above, and add the following:

Gear Rundown:
1.Control Surface: I use the Avid Artist Color, but Tangent and JL Cooper make good ones as well. This will make your Resolve work a whole lot faster.
Cost: $1300
2. Thunderbolt PCI-E Expansion Box: If you need PCI-E Cards for your Thunderbolt Mac, you’ll need one of these (Red Rocket, eSata, or if, like me, you have a Blackmagic card from an old Mac Pro you still want to use). Magma and Sonnet both make them. I’ve got the Magma.
Cost: $979
3. Red Rocket: If you need real time playback of your RED footage in Resolve at a high de-Bayer for really fast transcoding, you’ll need one of these.
Cost: $4,750
4. Software: DaVinci Resolve lite only allows you to deliver up to 1080p. If you want 2k/4k and you don’t want to finish in FCPX, you need a full Resolve License.
Cost: $1,000
5. Hard Drives: The Thunderbolt G-RAID will still work just fine, but if you want to step it up even more, you can opt for the Pegasus RAID (4-12TB).
Cost: $1,056-$2,230
6. Monitoring: DreamColor and Flanders will make you scale down to 1080p monitoring. Honestly, this is fine, as your image won’t change and there really isn’t an affordable 4k monitoring system at this point. However, hopefully RED will change that at some point and release a 4k Projector worth buying for around 10k. In the meantime, view in 1080p and just deliver at 4k using your normal monitor.

Total Cost: $12,800-21,000

Plug-ins: The plug-in ecosystem for FCPX is pretty amazing and has really sped up my workflow. I did a series of tutorials about some of the ones from FxFactory here.
My favorites would definitely be the Nattress Levels and Curves, Tokyo Split Animator, Ripple Callouts, and Luca Visual FX series. For more info or to purchase, go here.

FCPX: In my opinion, you don’t need all of the ones they sell for FCPX, just the main tutorial and the multicam one ($49.99 and $39.99).
Motion: I really recommend the Motion 5 Complete Series set for $199.99 (most people don’t realize how great Motion is, and these tutorials are pretty amazing and well done).
Resolve: If you want to learn Resolve, you pretty much need this (79.99).

Learning Tools:
Free: I released a set of free FCPX tutorials. These should be used in conjunction with the paid ones I list below, as they’re more workflow-centric and less concerned with what the buttons do. The Batch Renaming and Advanced Multicam Sync is a good place to start. You can find them here.
“The MacBreak Studio” web series: This is a series of FCPX/Motion tips from the Ripple Training guys. The web series can be found here.
Paid: The Ripple Training Tutorials are awesome.

Lastly, for all kinds of DIY Film industry news like this and to get involved with a bunch of people in LA and Toronto who are trying to make movies cool again, check us out at We Make Movies.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: We Make Movies (Better): A FCP X/RED feature film workflow, part 1

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