Don’t Fight the Magnetic Timeline!


Fighting the Magnetic Timeline
One of the biggest “issues” people coming from other NLE’s still seem to have with FCP X is how the Timeline works. Magnetism! No Tracks! Weird Snorkel Things! Storylines?! It’s Crazytown! And while even fans of other NLE’s can see the benefits of the FCP X browser for searching and organizing footage, many editors seem to hit a wall in the timeline. If you fall into that category, this little article may help.

This isn’t a tutorial, just my experience, so please forgive me if I ramble a bit and gloss over some stuff as I go. And I assume you have at least a passing familiarity with FCP X features and jargon.

Coming from a track based NLE, a quick way to get acclimated to the Magnetic Timeline is to put a chunk of Gap into the Primary Storyline and just cut with Connected Clips. If you do that, X pretty much behaves like an NLE with tracks. And by “pretty much” I mean you can grab or lasso clips, drag ’em around, and they all stay put relative to the sequence time.  You can use transitions as well, FCP X will automatically create Secondary Storylines as needed when you apply them to adjacent connected clips.

Old Skool :-)

Like other NLE’s, you can SHIFT-Drag (maintaining horizontal sync) to vertically arrange clips so that -using audio as an example- VO is up top near picture, then SFX, then Music. However, every clip is going to want to stick to the Primary. If you have 5 nicely stacked clips in one section, followed by 2 clips in another… they’re not gonna line up horizontally.

Not surprisingly my feeling is… who cares!? But, if you do, you can create empty secondary storylines or use empty titles or silent audio to use as separators. Also, you can put “sequence markers” on these separators, which is kind of nice. I think eventually this workaround won’t be necessary, but for now it does the trick.


So… that is how you cut in FCP X by doing everything you can to counteract the magnetic timeline. The thing is… doing that sucks. If you try to use X like 7 or Pr or MC… it will get ugly pretty quickly, which I think is why a lot of people give up on X at first. If you’re doing that, stop it! You’re doing it wrong. If you use X the way it’s designed to work, it’s very easy to manage even complex timelines. This is not a you dinosaurs dont get it! admonition. All I’m saying is that Embracing Magnetism makes editing fun! My sage advice to you is:

Dont Fight the Magnetic Timeline!

Many FCP X tutorials and how-to videos use simple sequences, nice, long clips and maybe 2 or 3 layers of audio. In these situations, dealing with the clips in your timeline is fairly straightforward. In the real world we often have considerably more going on than that, and that’s where things seem to break down if you’re used to tracks lining everything up. But the Magnetic Timeline makes dealing with this a breeze if you work with it, not against it.

I usually cut, shall we say… busy sequences. So what follows is a generalized descrition of my workflow on a typical project such as that pictured below. Around 18 stereo clips, or around 36 “tracks”.

A Pile Of Clips

I’m not saying this is the “correct” way to cut in X, there is no such thing, but it works for me. I fought against magnetism for quite a while. But over time, I’ve stopped fighting it, and now have a hard time cutting without it. If you use X like X, it’s not a big deal at all. Anyway, no matter how simple or complicated your cut will be, the first and probably most important thing you need to do is:

Set Up Your Roles!

This is really important, as Roles take on the majority of the organizational functions of tracks in other NLE’s. If you assign Roles properly, you can use the Timeline Index to mute or solo elements, export split tracks/versions, find and select multiple clips and modify common properties for all of them at once, and a boatload of other really useful things.

If you don’t set your Roles up properly, your Project will quickly become an horrific, unmanageable nightmare. This is especially true for audio, as there is generally much more of it in the timeline. I’ll talk mostly about audio here, though what follows is generally true of video as well.

The “built in” Roles in any new Library are Video, Titles, Dialog, Music, and Effects. You can create and assign as many Roles and Sub-Roles as you need. I’ve done that in the picture above. The more detailed your Roles, the more precise your ability to interact with the Timeline will be.

When you import a clip to X, video automatically gets assigned a “Video” Role, and any audio with the video (regardless of what it is) gets assigned a “Dialog” Role. Audio-only clips will sometimes get auto-assigned the correct Role (Music, Effects, etc), but more often than not they default to Dialog. So… Always double check the Role of any clip after you bring it in to an event. Always.

You can assign Roles to clips in the Project timeline via the Inspector, but it will only change the timeline clip(s). This is quite useful later in an edit for creating sub-roles, reassigning audio etc. Do it first in the Browser though, and it’ll carry into every project in which you use that source. Changing Roles on a clip in the browser after you cut it into the Project will not change the clips in your projects.

Hey, this isn’t dialog! I better fix it.

You can set Roles on multiple clips if you bring in a folder of music or effects or whatever. (as shown above, select multiple clips in list view and click the Role pop-up. Everything selected will be set to your choice). You’ll be glad you did.

Since I generally get video with multichannel split tracks embedded in the master file, I also need to set Roles for the embedded stems in my master clips. Select the master clip in the Browser, open it in a Timeline, and set the proper roles for each channel.

1-Open the clip(s)                        2-Select the channel(s)                          3-Set the Role(s)

In addition to allowing you to do a nice split audio output with the click of a menu or two, Roles allow you to Mute, Solo, Locate, Select and Manipulate clip(s). You do this using the most overlooked (IMO) part of X, the Timeline Index. I too will overlook that subject for now, but it’s awesome. 😉

I’ll also overlook the other stuff you normally do before starting a sequence… Selects, Favorites, Keywording etc. There are lots of actual tutorials on that. If done properly though, it becomes really easy to find footage you’re looking for as you cut. So… now you’ve got your sources imported, all with proper Roles set, and you’ve made your selects.

Starting The Cut

First thing I do is create a new Project using the “automatic” setting. I then cut a second or so of my main source video in as a connected clip to auto-set the resolution and frame rate. Nothing unusual here. Just like other NLE’s, you can also manually create pretty much any Project Settings you want when creating your project.

No idea why you’d want to, but you can do this if you’d like…

I then drag out the Gap clip that gets created to some arbitrary length, generally longer than I expect the cut to be. I like to stash unused bits and pieces at the end of the timeline as I go, so this leaves some space to do so.

Next I’ll delete the random clip, and cut in my handy slate generator. You too can make useful things like this in Motion even if, like me, you have no idea what you’re doing. Once the project is created, I set up a usable view. No giant thumbnails, no connections showing, and the lowest basic clip height. Just my preference, you can set it however you like.

I’ve also made custom shortcuts to switch between the “working” view, and a super minimized view that I use when I need to see everything in the timeline.

Now, Start Editing!

Cutting with FCP X is just the same as in any NLE, you cut stuff into a sequence. 😉  Just Don’t Fight The Timeline. Observe, see how it works, and go with it. It’s fun!

For narrative, you may just cut clips into the Primary Storyline and use trim mode to create your scenes. I cut short form, trailers and tv spots, so I generally assemble bits as connected clips, and “flatten” them to the Primary (CMD-OPT-Down Arrow) when they’re done-ish. Forget about carefully getting the clips to line up horizontally. Let it go. Just stack and drag and trim ’til they’re good and then dump ’em into the primary for fine-tuning.


Also, leave your sync audio attached to the video where possible. There are valid reasons to disconnect it – cheating dialog, using a sync effect in multiple places etc. – But in general, leave it attached.

You can drag and drop clips to the timeline if you like, and there are plenty of Keyboard Shortcuts. The shortcuts I use most when cutting are Q (connect), W (insert), D (overwrite) and E (append). Use these in conjunction with SHIFT-1 (Audio and Video), SHIFT-2 (Video only), and SHIFT-3 (Audio only). Actually, those 7 commands are really all you need to know to cut in FCP X. They take the place of tedious track “targeting”, and get what you want into the timeline.

Once clips are in a Project Timeline, the main shortcuts I use are V (disable/enable the clip or range), OPTION-S (Solo) , CMD OPTION-S (add to Solo group), CNTRL-S (expand audio/video), CMD-4 (open/close Inspector), CMD-5 (open/close FX Browser). There are a zillion more, and again, you can make your own. Spend some time with the command editor, there’s some great stuff in there! The Soloing capabilities alone in X are a joy when editing audio.

OK, you’ve set Roles, Made selects, and roughed in your cut. Time for some fine tuning in… the dreaded Primary Storyline.

The Primary Storyline. Use it.

I said above that the best way to get acclimated to the Magnetic Timeline is to fill the storyline with gap, and cut everything in as connected clips, and maybe even disconnect the audio. Just like track based NLE’s. That makes X work kind of like you’re “used to” working with separate A/V clips. I also said it sucks, which it does. You can lose sync, you’re constanly lassoing/clicking clips, and it’s really hard to keep track of things. Here’s what that method looks like.

Alternately, you could use connected clips and keep the audio components attached to maintain sync. This is akin to my “rough” stage noted above, but neater. I’d have more overlapping video which goes away when I “flatten” it. However, doing an entire cut like this also sucks.

Or… just stop fighting and use the Primary Storyline.

See? All nice and neat and easy to work with. When you add connected clips, audio or video, you can OPT-CMD-Click connected clips to adust the connection point to a Primary sync point you’d like it to “stick” to. Also, as you drag a connected clip, the viewer will show you the video frame of the primary clip that the connection point is lining up with. It’s a great feature, and really nice for “hard” SFX like guns, door closes, etc.

Use the Position Tool (P) to move clips without rippling. Hold the tilde key while adjusting clips (~) to temporarily disable connections.  Press and hold tilde (~) then press SHIFT and release both keys simultaneously to lock connections off. Press tilde again to re-enable connections.  The cursor pictured below let’s you know that connections are disabled.

The Primary is awesome once you “tame” it. That’s an entire article in itself, but here are the highlights…

A- Keep audio attached and expanded. Expand the components as well if you have a multichannel source.

If you need to break audio off to cheat something, create a compound clip with the audio and video when you’re done so it stays locked together. Make a smart collection and you also have all your cheats available as source clips. Very handy! (if you re-use the compound anywhere be sure to select it and choose reference new parent clipfrom the clip menu before you modify it!!)

B- In general, always cut audio and video into your timeline, even if you dont think you need the audio. You can disable it in the inpector or the expanded components (using the V-Key). That way it’s there if you need it, you never have to go back to the source.

C- As noted above, take a second as you cut to insure that clips are connected to the correct primary clip. You don’t have to do it as you go, but it’s just a quick click to do so. That way you don’t have to worry about it. Most of the time it’s fine, but if you have a clip that begins before the primary clip you’d like it to stick to, it’s worth checking…


Sometimes you’ll have a clip that ends before the primary clip it should stick to, like a suckback SFX leading into a hit or something. In these cases, make the clip into a compound clip, step into it and add some gap at the tail, and you can the drag it out in the timeline and connect it to the proper clip. It’s also now a source clip in the event if needed again.

D- Use The Skimmer! It may (will) drive you insane at first, but just leave it on. Once you get used to it you’ll wonder how you lived without it. The reduction in mouse clicks alone is huge. You’ll curse other NLE’s you work in for not having it. And Clip Skimming is the best thing since sliced bread.

E- There is no E. 😉 at this point just cut away. Select a primary clip to move it and all it’s associated clips using the Position tool (which overwrites adjacent clips in the Primary) or the Select tool which Ripples the timeline. In Select/Ripple mode, if all your connections are correct, it’s really easy and fast to trim a spot to time, cutdown a :60 to a :30 etc. Like, really easy.

For what it’s worth, in my world I mostly use the position tool. Also, in Position Mode, when you disable connections (TILDE+SHIFT and Release) you can select a group of clips that arent connected, and move them together if you use the arrow keys. For some reason dragging them gets a little weird. I imagine this will get fixed eventually.

I almost never use Select to move clips unless I want to easily swap bits in the timeline and maintain sync.

“But what about all the music I
ve cut up? you ask. I dont want those clips to move, no matter what I do to picture!!!Well, that’s where Secondary Storylines and Compound Clips come in handy.

Secondary Storylines Are FCP X Tracks

Making secondaries is kind of like making a new track in other NLE’s. But you only do it if you need one, which you do if you want to put a transition effect between connected clips. If you butt clips together and put transitions on them outside the Primary, X will put them in a Secondary Storyline for you. So… why else would you need one?

A major reason is if you’d like to cut a music bed first, lock it, and edit to that… without having each clip of your music cut move because it’s “connected” to the primary clip above it. Or maybe you have a bunch of little clips you want to keep together or easily move as a group. Whatever. Think of storylines as tracks you can move around if you want to.

If you add gap at the front end of a secondary and pin it to the head of your timeline it’ll behave exactly like a track, nothing you do in the Primary will affect it. What you can also do, that you can’t do in tracks, is expand the audio in Storyline clips and do a nice manual crossfade. so it takes the place of 2 (or 4) audio tracks in other NLE’s. You can select and manipulate clips in a storyline just like any connected clips in the timeline.

If you have a music bed in a secondary but you need lose a section or something, just cut the secondary into the chunks you need. Adjust connections and tweak your cut. You can rejoin into a single secondary (shown a couple pix below) when done, though you’ll need to make sure the clips don’t overlap first.

Storylines are also useful if you want to keep a group of clips together for visual organization. Again, just like tracks. Make new Storylines by selecting a clip and hitting CMD-G. If you forward (SHIFT) delete the clip in the secondary, it’ll leave an empty secondary. You can stash it at the tail of your timeline in case you need it for some reason…

Spare “tracks”

Another nice feature is that you can cut your music as separate, connected clips or in multiple secondaries, working on sections as you go and having the sections “stick” to the picture they work with.

After you make any tweaks you need to and it’s sort of locked, select all non-overlapping clips and hit CMD-G. Voila! A single “track”. The possiblities are endless really.

Compound clips can provide a similar, but more versatile function. Since they only have one connection point, you can do a complex music/picture edit, then just compound it. It’ll stay pinned to the head (or wherever you want it to). You can also add effects and level/opacity changes etc. Very cool. They seem like traditional nested clips, but they’re not. Think nested clips on steroids.

This Contains this

Or This

Becomes This

And I’ll say it again, Never detach your sync audio. Unless you need to cheat some dialog or something, leave the sync audio components with your video clips. If you know there’s a stem you won’t ever need, disable the component in the master clip in the browser. In my case, I hardly ever need the Music from a split source, so I just turn it off in the master clip.

That way, each clip I cut in has the sync Dialog and Effects with it. I can turn either Role on or off in the timeline clip(s) as needed, but it’s always there, I never need to match back to a clip to “find” the audio I didn’t think I needed. This essentially takes the place of track patching, but you only need to do it when you want to, not every freaking time you cut in a clip.

Oh… one more thing… you may have noticed that FCP X lets you put audio and video anywhere you want in the timeline. There is no real dividing line. One of my favorite things when cutting is literally “throwing” unused/rejected/alternate clips out of the way if I don’t need them. I just randomly toss stuff to the tail of my timeline in case I need it later. Try it! Since there are no tracks, you won’t overwrite anything and thus don’t even need to look to see where it’s going. Just maintain visual focus on the area you’re cutting. And Clip Skimming makes it really easy to see what each clip in that pile at the tail is without even playing the Project.

I could go on and on until I’ve written an entire convoluted, incomplete, and confusing manual. So I’ll stop here. To sum up… Use the Magnetic Timeline! Learn it’s functions. Don’t try to make it work like a tracked NLE, use all the features it provides. Experiment. I’ve found a ton of cool tricks/functions using the scientific I wonder what would happen if I did this? method.

FCP X isn’t perfect, but what NLE is? There are quirks and bugs and things that will get better… but it doesn’t matter. I jump between FCP 7, Pr, and X all the time. I own and try to stay current with MC 8 and Resolve 11, and I’ve preordered Hit Film 3. I have a problem… 😉 They are all great NLE’s, but X really does let me be more creative. Once you’re familiar with the FCP X Magnetic Timeline, it just gets out of the way.

There’s a misguided meme that FCP X is rigid and inflexible. It’s not. It lets me do whatever crazy things I want. It doesn’t fight me (much), and I don’t fight it (much). 😉 I think that’s exactly how any program in which you are creating something should work, Don’t you?



Author credits:

Charlie Austin, Creative COW MagazineCharlie Austin
Los Angeles, California USA

Charlie Austin is a fancy, award-winning editor. Over the course of his career he has worked as a professional musician, a post production mixer, and worn a variety of hats in film, TV, and live production.

He currently cuts trailers and other advertising for talking pictures in Los Angeles.

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