It had been long enough.  Since the fall of 2011 I’d been opening up Final Cut Pro X in my spare time, clicking around the unfamiliar interface, and then jumping back to the tried-and-true earlier version that’s served me well since 2001.  I downloaded the FCP X manual, dug through the lynda.com tutorials, and read the hundreds of blog postings debating its merits, but until I actually threw myself into the fire I would never know if this was a tool that I could use.

BACKGROUND

The bulk of the editing that I do is for broadcast- promos, documentaries, and DVD extras that also see airtime on the network airing that particular show.  I have the luxury of working with a team of highly skilled colleagues on a shared area network (SAN) that lets us collaborate on projects and share media without constantly copying files and shuttling drives around.  Up until now we have leaned almost exclusively on Final Cut Studio, with a graphic assist from After Effects and Autodesk Smoke.

Toward the end of 2012 I learned that I was going to be working with one broadcast client almost exclusively for several months, generating a lot of content to support two shows that debut at the end of March and a major film airing in April.  It was going to be a full promotional push: promos, behind-the-scenes features, and longer pieces that could be described as mini-documentaries.  The producer I’d be working with is a long-time friend that I’ve known for more than 15 years, so I suspected he’d be OK with me taking things in a new direction.  Additionally, these projects would not be handed off to another editor; I’d be able to essentially work on an island independent of the business-as-usual workflow happening around me, much as I did back in 2001 when I introduced a Final Cut Pro system into a sea of Avid Media Composers.

DAY ONE

The first job involved creating some profile pieces for the film showing in April, which arrived at the office on HDCAM.  Since FCP X’s support for traditional tape is practically nonexistent I jumped back to version 7 and loaded it in as ProRes 422, which imported seamlessly into X.  I didn’t plan to return to FCP 7 until I had a finished piece to go back to an HDCAM master.

The interviews came to me on a Compact Flash card, shot with the C300 camera.  This is where X starts to shine.  Instead of spending hours transcoding these files to an edit friendly format, I was able to import them immediately into FCP X and start logging and editing.  While the files were still copying to the Xsan.  There’s nothing that kills creative momentum like watching a progress bar for hours before the work can begin.  Sure, in some cases we could have an assistant editor transcode and import to FCP 7 the night before, but this time the interview was shot in our studio with two cameras and walked into the edit suite to start pulling selects that same afternoon.

I had read a lot about how great X’s multicam features were, so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to test that out.  Indeed, the software quickly and easily matched cameras A and B by lining up the audio waveforms in each angle and allowed me to view the results in a custom timeline called an Angle Editor.  Here I could reorder the tracks, give each a custom name, and even apply an early color correction pass if I wanted.

Now that most of my material was loaded in, it was time to start the process of tagging clips in the Event Library in FCP X.  I knew that only certain portions of the film were allowed to be used for promotion due to copyright restrictions, so step one was isolating those sections.  Using Final Cut’s Favorite tag did the trick quite nicely.  I shuttled through the film with the familiar JKL keys used by most NLE systems, marked the usable material, and tapped the F key.  This displays in the clip thumbnail as a green line over that portion of the film.  Once I was done I switched the Event Library display from “All Clips” to “Favorites,” and I had the selects I needed laid out, with the other parts of the film hidden from view.  Not a bad first day.

EDITING

Magnetic Timeline.  When I heard those words in Apple’s PR release, and then in the early reviews, I could describe my reaction as being a combination of indignation and bewilderment.  Why would this software be trying to “save me” from myself when I’d been working with complex edited sequences for so many years?  I knew perfectly well how to keep my audio in sync, and I relished the challenge of digging into a heavily layered edit to make changes required by client review.  Clearly Apple was going after the beginner and giving up on the veterans of the earlier versions of Final Cut, right?  Wrong.  They were going after everyone.

A few weeks back my 11 year old son and his friend had a school project and they decided they wanted to make a “documentary” as part of their presentation.  They knew nothing of editing, and of course waited until the last week to really get in there and do the work.  I set them up with FCP X, showed them a few basics, and stepped back to see what would happen.  What happened was that they had a rough cut done that first night- an edited narration track, visuals, and even a few cuts of music sketched out by the time I took his friend home around 11pm.

My first day editing in X was arguably a more difficult experience than my son’s.  My preconceived notions of how it “should” work were getting in my way, and I stumbled along.  I couldn’t just grab a clip and move it down past the end of my sequence- it would “snap” back unless I specifically added a gap clip in between.  The audio from my interviews was combined into the same clip into the timeline instead of being broken out into discreet tracks like FCP 7 and earlier.  My list of grievances grew in my head throughout the day.

Then something happened.  A few hours into day two, I realized that I wasn’t paying attention to the process any more; I was focused on storytelling.  I was confident that if I cut in a b-roll shot that was too long it wouldn’t overwrite the clip I had already put in further down- that other clip would just move up and out of the way until I had time to focus on it.  If I was zoomed in close on a particular edit point, I could trim a shot’s duration and know that tracks weren’t being pushed out of sync somewhere else.  It was pretty liberating and I found myself actually having some fun with the story I was telling onscreen.

Final Cut Pro X’s editing tools are not perfect- there is still some room for improvement.  Performing a replace edit, for instance, is lacking where it used to be much more powerful.  I also miss the track select tool from FCP 7 where you could instantly highlight some or all clips before or after your position in the timeline.  But overall there is a lot to like in the nuts-and-bolts aspect of editing in X, and I now feel like I’m at least as fast as I am in the “legacy” version of Final Cut I’ve been using for 12 years.

FINISHING

As most editors know, the tools we use these days have advanced to the point where any of them can feasibly “finish” a project.  We find ourselves cutting with full-quality sources instead of highly compressed offline resolutions, so it only makes sense that we take on more of the color correction and effects work.  The tools built into Final Cut Pro X have impressed me in this regard.

After a month or so of editing, we had a really nice series of short features that expanded on some themes discussed in the film, and we got to hear some interesting behind the scenes tales from the filmmakers about how their project came together.  Now it was time to make it look great.  The interviews were well shot, but the lighting was a little flat and the mostly white walls behind the subjects gave it kind of a sterile look.  Using FCP X’s Color Board, I was able to create image masks and add some shadowing and vignette looks around the interviewees that really helped.  Matching the color between the two camera angles also came together nicely, and the waveform and vectorscopes built into X allowed me to tweak away and keep everything within broadcast spec.

Graphically speaking, I incorporated titles generated within FCP X and some other elements from After Effects.  The titler is a big improvement over the standard Boris Title3D plugin in legacy FCP.  Just being able to manipulate the text on screen over the visuals is something just about every other NLE has done for years, and it’s a welcome improvement here.  The text it creates looks clean and sharp on the broadcast display.

The elements I created in After Effects had to be rendered as QuickTime files with an alpha channel and then imported into FCP X; there’s no real integration between the two applications the way there is between AE and Premiere Pro.  Photoshop files, however, do import into FCP X with all layers intact, and you can view the layered file in its own timeline and tweak accordingly.

I didn’t have a need to jump into Apple’s Motion this time around, but I did notice that one crucial feature from the earlier versions was missing this time around: the “Send to Motion” option in FCP that lets you select a section of the timeline and open it in Motion is absent.  This is unfortunate and I hope that it returns in a future update.

It should be mentioned that FCP X has no built-in method for sending audio sequences to a sound designer using Pro Tools or something similar.  I have been using the $149 application called X2Pro from Marquis Broadcast to do this and the experience has been pretty smooth.  I did uncover one non-critical bug and contacted the vendor, and they were refreshingly responsive.  A fix is in the works.

DELIVERING

In the years leading up to the release of FCP X, Apple seemed to be unifying the look and feel of their desktop software, and the legacy version of Final Cut continued to be left behind in this regard.  Now, the range selections in FCP look suspiciously like selected pictures in iPhoto, the iTunes library is accessible from within the editing software, and “Export” has turned into “Share” like its iCousins.

The Share menu is the one-stop destination for delivering my finished work on this project.  To fulfill the client’s requirements of delivering on an HDCAM tape, I used the Share menu to create Master Files which I sent over to FCP 7 to output.  What’s nice is that the Share menu is very customizable and you can easily build it to serve your specific needs.  I built shortcuts to export still frames, audio AIFF files, H.264 QuickTime files for approval, and so on.  The button sits right there on the edge of the timeline and I find myself using it a lot.

WRAPUP

Overall my experience with Final Cut Pro X was positive and encouraging.  The UI is appealing, the performance is solid, and the technical quality of the finished project speaks for itself.  Apple wiped the slate clean with version 10.0, and by 10.0.6 it seems as if they’ve been very selective about what they’ve added or improved upon.

I remember that day in 2011 when Final Cut Pro X was released (and every previous version was erased from the Apple Store…but don’t get me started).  It was software that I and most of my colleagues would not be able to use professionally, and I thought that it would probably be two years before any of that changed.  It’s closing in on two years and FCP X feels ready.  Not perfect, but ready.  I’ve already started my next three projects.

4 thoughts on “Two months with Final Cut Pro X

  1. What’s great about this review is that I understood virtually every word of it. As a director and early adopter of Final Cut X, it’s also reassuring to know that my initial noodling edits on my projects won’t get lost when I turn the project over to a “real” editor like Bill. Also, it seems like Apple has addressed many of the issues that were so fervently flamed about in past iteration of X. Only difficult pistachios left in the bag now.

    FInally, It’s very helpful to understand the process and creative thinking of this editor from my point of view as a director. Now, I’ll have some clue as to what’s going through his mind as I stare at the back of his head from my client seat.

  2. I agree with Mr. ThinkFilm. Great review, Bill – it makes me want to jump in myself because it sounds like despite the hype 2 years ago, it’s really better than 7 in a lot of ways! Glad to see you back on the blog 🙂

    KD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s