Stuff I Didn’t Learn in School #1 – Exporting – The easiest and best way to export a FCP timeline

For an explanation of this blog series, check out the post where I explain the blog series. That would be best.

I feel like I should make the number in this post #5 or #98 so it looks like a long-standing series with a huge amount of credibility. But then I thought about that old joke about letting 2 pigs loose in a school for a senior prank, and painting #1 on one of them, and #3 on the other, and watch as everyone tries to find #2. I wouldn’t want someone searching through the crevasses of my blog for nonexistent pigs OR blogs, so we’ll keep it truthful – this is the first post. Disclaimer: I am in no way a world class FCP expert, but this information is accurate as best I know. Blogging to give others useful information is somewhat new to me (I grew up with a Livejournal, which is information NOBODY EVER NEEDS), and I’m going to try really hard to evolve with it and make it better continuously. What I’m trying to say: if this sucks right now, please come back a few times.

First up – Exporting – The easiest and best way to export a FCP timeline and use Compressor to make it awesome! This is an easy one, yet something people seriously struggle with. I think it’s the confusion caused by attempting to guess at the correct thing to click on within the export menu, the lack of anyone ever explaining this, and the fact nobody reads on their own to find out the best way because eventually SOMEthing works SOMEhow.

Let’s say you have a completed timeline. It’s a masterpiece. You’ve saved it, watched it through a few times, and you’re confident it’s Oscar-material.

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The only thing standing between you and the recognition of the Academy is a little exporting. No problem, you’ve made it this far. You click some stuff, and then

18 hours remaining…


“Wait, why is it all …squishy..?”


“The file you sent us is 20 mb and Quicktime can’t play it. Are you an idiot? You’re never working in this town AGAIN!”


(In school, I never remember going over the various parts of exporting. That is ridiculous, considering what a valuable asset knowing your codecs has become with the prevalence of internet video. I think the only bit of information I can remember is list of steps and settings to create an acceptable video for a random class. How silly.)

There are a few different ways to get a deliverable out of Final Cut Pro 7 (many of which are also available in previous versions, and work almost exactly the same OR exactly the same). One of these ways is generally far superior to the other, but I will explain them all. I’ll start with the Export menu. Go to File, and then Export and check out the list.

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We’re going to concern ourselves with the first two on the list – Quicktime Movie, and Using Quicktime Conversion. The next 2 on the list are Livetype and Soundtrack, two other apps within the Final Cut Suite. The rest on the list are for other post production tasks that are useful to know, but for the sake of this article I’m skipping them. We’re talking about getting a video file from the current timeline, so I’ll save EDLs for another day.

So, what’s the difference between Quicktime Movie and Quicktime Conversion? Well, they’re pretty much exactly what they sound like if you think about it.

By choosing Quicktime Movie, you are telling Final Cut that you would like a copy of your movie as it stands in the timeline. FCP will export your movie using your sequence settings, which usually (but not always) match your source footage codec. You know what codec you’re sequence is using…right? To check that, go up to Sequence, and select Settings.

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You’ll see the information for your current sequence here, and you can change it if necessary. You typically want all this set up BEFORE you start editing, because things can and will go nutty if you start changing things now.

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You’ll probably have to render most of the timeline if you change it to something other than the source footage codec. If everything seems well, then we’ll assume you set it all up right and close that window.

One cool thing about using Quicktime Movie is that you aren’t compressing the movie any further. Go ahead and select Quicktime Movie from the Export drop down (or use the keyboard shortcut CMD-E).

The Save window now pops up for you to select some final settings before export.

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To export an identical movie to what you see in the timeline, keep Setting on Current Setting. There may be instances when you want something smaller, but if you are going to be changing frame sizing, it’s usually best to let Compressor do this task (or so I’ve been told). You can select Audio and Video, or just Audio Only or Video Only depending on your next step in the post process.

You can also export markers if you have some on your timeline.

DVD Studio Pro Markers are useful if you’re going to be bringing your video into DVD Studio Pro for authoring a DVD. You can place a few different useful markers right on the FCP timeline, like break points that don’t interrupt your scene for dual layer discs, or simple chapter markers.
Compression Markers are good if you’re doing a bit more advanced compressing with Compressor. You can tell Compressor where certain frames are for various reasons.
Chapter Markers are basic chapter markers.
Audio Scoring Markers are useful in Soundtrack Pro to guide the scoring process.

For our project, we’ll select None for Markers.

You’ll also see two checkboxes.

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Recompress All Frames, and Make Movie Self-Contained.

Recompress All Frames will make for a smaller file, but it’ll also be less quality, so don’t click on that. Sometimes it’s not available to you depending on your project settings.

This other box is important. A Quicktime Movie that is NOT self-contained (box unchecked) becomes a Reference movie.

A Quicktime Reference File looks like any other file, but will usually be much smaller in file size. It will export much faster unless there is unrendered stuff on the timeline to work through. It will pretty much act like other Quicktime files too – until you start moving things around. If you try to use this file as your archived master copy, uh oh.

Unable to open or read file…

A Reference Movie contains all the pointers to your original footage and cuts and render files. If you move anything in the slightest, these pointers get confused, the paths break, and your file is useless. However, Reference files are incredibly useful when taking your movie from FCP to Compressor or another app, or simply to preview it outside of FCP. And the more rendered your timeline is, the smaller the file size of the Reference file since it doesn’t have to create its own render files – it points to the ones you already made.

Exporting a Quicktime Movie (not self-contained, a reference) with a completely rendered timeline also makes the export super fast, which is great when you are in a rush. This is the best way to export your timeline to transcode for the web, for DVD, whatever you need in Compressor. You’ll always get the best result when taking the Quicktime Movie and putting it into Compressor.

A Self-Contained movie is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The file can stand alone on its own without referencing anything else. It can be archived. It will also typically be a pretty huge file, so prepare for that. It will be a copy of your movie directly off the timeline that stands alone. This is generally the best way to make a master copy of your movie to back up and transcode to other formats or codecs later.

Sidenote: Occasionally Compressor will get hung up on a Reference movie for some reason. If you’re trying to work with a file like that and it seems that Compressor isn’t doing any processing, try exporting a self-contained Quicktime Movie instead and use that. I’m not sure why this happens, but it randomly does.

So that’s Quicktime Movie exporting, and it’s what you should be using to export your timeline on a daily basis! Use not self-contained for a Reference movie to use for transcoding right away, self-contained for a master copy.

Using Quicktime Conversion is a little more difficult.

If you go to File > Using Quicktime Conversion, you’ll see another save window pop up.

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You can choose your Format or settings straight from this window, or you can click on Options… on the right. You’ll see a possibly familiar Quicktime Movie Settings window.

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Here you can adjust lots of settings that I’m not going to go over right now. This is where you can select a different codec from what you edited in, such as H264. Using Quicktime Conversion means you’re adding another layer of compression to your export. If you’re exporting a high quality copy for DVD, this isn’t what you want to do. If you’re exporting a small copy for the web, you might use this. However, I typically export a reference file and place it in Compressor for whatever various codecs I might need because I feel that Compressor, although slow, does a much better job of encoding than FCP’s conversion. Plus, I have the reference file to use for a bunch of different files if I want to do that.

That’s the gist of that selection. Like I said, I don’t use it much unless I want a quick and dirty file for some reason. It doesn’t do the best with encoding.

Another way to get your deliverable out of FCP is the Share menu. Go to File > Share.

And you’ll see this little Share window pop up.

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This is the only way to get a blu-ray out of FCP, if you’re interested. The Share window basically is using Compressor in the background to encode some basic files you might need. You can select a few different things, like iPhone, Apple TV, H264, YouTube, MobileMe, etc. If you have a custom setting you frequently use, this could be useful for you. Otherwise, I don’t use it too often because I like to dig into the settings more than this menu allows, and it’s slow. The good thing about Share is that the encoding happens in the background, so you can continue to work in FCP while your file is created.

And yet another way to export is by going to Send To under the File menu. You can send your timeline to various other apps within Final Cut Studio like Color or Soundtrack Pro, so that could be an option for you if you’re trying to get to that point.

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You should note however that your timeline might need to be tweaked to optimize it for these apps. Select Compressor from the list. Your timeline will be sent to Compressor without the intermediate step of a Reference file. Again, I don’t use this much (if ever) because it ties up Final Cut completely (not that I’m usually editing when I’m encoding stuff, but still) and it usually goes quite a bit slower than putting a file straight into Compressor. I haven’t had the same consistently good results with it either.

There you have it, the best way and all the various ways to get your stunning work out of FCP and into your hands, or the hands of a client who needs it yesterday. Generally, if you render your whole timeline and stick with exporting that Reference file then drop it into Compressor, your life will be much easier than your peers’.

You can also enhance your post-production lifestyle by setting up Compressor droplets to drop reference files onto in order to create regularly used file types. And you can make post a trip to the spa if you set up virtual clusters for Compressor. This allows multiple instances of Compressor to run, splits up files, and encodes them separately, and puts them back together. It’s magical.