2018 FCPX Creative Summit

I’m excited to be a part of this year’s FCPX Creative Summit in Cupertino November 16-18, where I’ll be talking about some of my editing workflows with Final Cut Pro X on large scale promotional campaigns.

I’ve been an editor for over 20 years, hopping platforms from linear tape, Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro “Classic”, to Final Cut Pro X, with side trips into Adobe Premiere Pro and Blackmagic Resolve.

Apple used 2017’s Summit to unveil FCPX 10.4 running on the new iMac Pro, so with any luck we’ll have some interesting news this time around.

Tour de France and the switch to FCPX

Peter Wiggins, for fcp.co:

I was starting to get concerned about how long we could continue to edit in FCP7. By now it had had no support for three years and very little in the way of updates for 2 years before that. At some point it was going to break, already we were seeing slowdowns and hangs. Yes we could probably hold out another year but that would be all. Time to look for a replacement.

All in all a great read, and much of what Peter describes is what FCP7 editors have been grappling with since 2011.

Jumping off the cliff

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and that’s largely because I’ve been deep in a project that I recently completed, and it just happens to start airing tonight.

The show I worked on was somewhat complex in its source material, organization, assembly, and deliverables (multiple versions for different media outlets) and I stayed within FCPX for all of it.

On day one of the job, I stood on a metaphorical cliff deciding which NLE to use (my choices at hand were FCP7, Premiere Pro, and FCPX). As a bit of history, I started using Avid from 1995 to 2001, FCP “Classic” from 2001 to late 2012, and from there began testing the waters with Premiere and FCPX. I had lingering concerns about how FCPX would perform with an increasingly complex project, but the first few days were comprised mostly of logging and tagging sources, so I had a window of escape to another program if things started going downhill.

They didn’t.

FCPX performed quite well. I set up some hotkeys to tag media using keyword collections, and was able to very quickly get things organized. Switching between list and thumbnail view, or drilling down to only favorites were a few more keystrokes. It was all fast and fluid.

I was also dealing with many tracks of timecode-synced split audio files, so I selected them and created multicam clips, cut them into the timeline, and activated only the channels I needed in any given instance. When it was time to send the show to ProTools for the final mix (using the rock-solid X2Pro application), only the active tracks I chose were included in the AAF. Very convenient, and it kept the timeline streamlined. Speaking of the timeline, the timeline index was indispensable. With a click I could enable or disable music or effects globally, and I regularly used the search field to track down and select specific items in a sea of other clips.

FCPX’s most “controversial” feature, the magnetic timeline, is also fast and flexible in my opinion. I found that during the rough cut phase I could do a lot without taking my hands off the keyboard- no tracks to patch. In X I tend to do a “sketch” of the story I’m telling by quickly getting the pieces in place, and then I go back through and refine my edits. It’s nice to know that I can drill down to a specific moment in the timeline and make adjustments knowing that I’m not knocking something out of place further down in the sequence.

There were other little features in X that I appreciated. The Vimeo integration was handy for firing off a version for approval while I kept working on a different part of the show. The to-do markers helped to keep track of changes. Having color correction and image stabilization options built into every clip (as opposed to applying a filter each time) was great.

Overall I was glad I jumped off that cliff.

FCPX’s “Cold Mountain” moment

Editors familiar with Final Cut Pro’s history know that the legacy version of the application gained some major traction in the pro marketplace following Walter Murch’s decision to edit 2003’s Cold Mountain with FCP.  Over a decade later (and almost three years after its release) Final Cut Pro X is on the edge of a similar game changer.

This week, fcp.co linked to a ten minute presentation from Neil Smith from LumaForge at the Digital Cinema Society meeting last month.  Smith describes (without giving names) how a major Hollywood studio is editing a “100 million dollar movie” using six Final Cut Pro X workstations running Mavericks and connected to an Xsan.  In listening to the details that Smith lays out, it was surmised by fcp.co forum member Ronny Courtens that the film in question is Focus, starring Will Smith.

The obvious question: why is a Hollywood studio going against the Avid grain to cut a motion picture in X?  According to Neil Smith, the directors themselves are the driving force- they have been editing with FCPX on their MacBook Pros for two years and insisted upon using it for this feature.  The studio pushed back, but the the film’s producer had enough clout and sided with the directors, and they got their way.  They touted the creative power and flexibility of X as well as the relatively low cost of the buildout as the main reasons behind their decision.

2014 should be a tipping point for Final Cut Pro, one that’s been in the making for quite some time.  New Mac Pros will (finally) be arriving in editors’ hands, and the solid upgrade to version 10.1 (its 10th revision since 2011) brings FCP to a new level of capability in a shared professional environment.

Incremental progress vs. starting over

As creative professionals in 2013 we often find ourselves bridging a divide, with Adobe’s products on one side and Apple’s on the other.  I spend most of my time switching between Final Cut Pro X and After Effects (with Motion 5 thrown in for good measure).  FCPX is by far my NLE of choice, and going back to FCP7 or Premiere feels like a trip back in time.  Meanwhile, After Effects is still the reigning champ of the motion graphics world, so learning it is a must.  But looking at these two applications side by side illustrates two very different philosophies when it comes to embracing change moving forward.

After Effects is an incredibly deep and useful piece of software with a history and code base that dates back over 20 years.  Each successive release has added new features and workflow improvements while retaining practically everything that came before.  It is in Adobe’s best interest to keep their customer base happy, and not rocking the boat seems to be their plan to achieve that (Creative Cloud subscription controversies notwithstanding).

The downside is that this strategy may ultimately hold Adobe back.  Freelance editor and animator Lou Borella posted an interesting comparison video on Vimeo that highlights the performance differences between After Effects (CS6 and CC) and Apple’s Motion 5- it’s really worth a watch, and make sure you stick around to browse the comments.  While both versions of AE struggle to play back a single HD video clip in his demonstration, Motion handles it effortlessly, even after he applies additional layers and filters during real time looping playback.  His argument is that the legacy code in After Effects is preventing the program from fully embracing current hardware advances.

Apple, as we know, took a different route when Final Cut Pro was at a crossroads.  FCP7 was stuck in 32-bit and could only address a fraction of the RAM installed in high end systems.  Most material shot with newer cameras had to be transcoded to ProRes before editing could begin, which took many hours of productivity killing time.  Apple responded with version X.  Here are a few of my comments on the state of the transition back in September 2011:

I’ve said this before, but FCP X is not finished.  It feels like a stable beta release, but one where many features are missing or incomplete.  If I was forced to make a decision today to switch from FCP 7 to something else, the answer would be clear: X is not an option.  But a year from now?  Two years from now?  Things could be entirely different.  The question is whether or not the pro editing community can hold on that long.

It’s been two years, and things are indeed a lot different. Final Cut Pro has seen a steady march of point release updates (with a major revision coming next month alongside the new Mac Pro) and I’m using it for virtually every broadcast editing job that comes my way.  Adobe Premiere and After Effects are great products and will continue to be the go-to tools for a large portion of the market.  After Effects in particular is extremely powerful and I use it daily, although the lure of real time playback and a refined interface has me dipping more and more into Motion 5 lately.

FCP X: the turning point

Two years ago I wrote a piece called FCP X: the missed opportunity.  At the time I wasn’t bashing the program, but rather Apple’s seemingly clumsy approach to the transition, and today I can still smell the lingering smoke from those burned bridges.  Reading it today, I stand most of my original assertions: FCP X 10.0 was essentially beta software, but not bad software.  Apple dropped the ball by not providing a clearer roadmap for deeply invested customers who had used previous versions for over a decade, an error they eventually tried to reverse by being very un-Apple like and pre-announcing features the pros were looking for.  Adobe and Avid smelled blood in the water, and fought hard to pick up those dismayed FCP 7 expatriates.

By the fall of 2011 I had downloaded first the trial and then the full version of Final Cut Pro, but didn’t spend much time with it.  I felt like it was too limiting and that it was trying to somehow save me from myself.  After all, I had spent almost 20 years meticulously building timelines without clips “magnetically” sticking together.  Nonlinear editing systems from their inception in the 80s built their workflows and terminology upon concepts established a century earlier with cutting film.  “Clips” represented snippets of film hanging in “bins” that allowed editors to quickly organize and “splice” them together.  Final Cut Pro X was scrubbed almost entirely of this language, and it felt somewhat arbitrary.

In 2012 I started to spend more time with FCP X and tried to really understand it.  Dismissing it before ever really using it just didn’t feel right.  I eventually chose the “trial by fire” approach: I had a willing client with some patience to spare, and we jumped in.  The first day was frustrating for me, but the second was much better, and by day three I was fairly confident that I knew what I was doing.  Since then I’ve only edited projects in FCP X unless I had to go another way (the lack of tape support still sends me to FCP 7 to master to HDCAM).  I truly enjoy the non-destructive nature of the timeline, and the database driven organizational tools are amazingly flexible.  The software (usually) feels fast and responsive, and the modern architecture with AV Foundation allows me to mix and match formats and framerates quite fluidly.

In the months and years since its launch, Final Cut Pro X has evolved into a different animal than it was on release day.  Apple’s steady drumbeat of software updates (9 by the most recent count) introduced new features and stability.  Sales of FCP X have already exceeded those of the previous version.  The third party plugin market is flourishing.

Many people forget that it took years for FCP “classic” to break through.  Pros largely dismissed the first several versions.  How could a sub-$1000 application compete with systems like Avid’s Media Composer with its proprietary hardware, market dominance, and high price tag?  Some (myself included) experimented with it on personal systems and started to realize the potential.  By 2001 (two years into FCP’s life) I was using it as my main editing tool, and although it was exciting to be trying something new after 6 years of Avid, I wouldn’t wish that experience on the faint of heart.  Mac hardware and software in those days was downright anemic compared to today- we were still using Mac OS 9 and all the system crashes that came with it.  Third party support was sketchy and workarounds were plentiful.

FCP’s turning point was seen by many as what became known as its “Cold Mountain moment.”  In 2003, esteemed editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient) decided to cut his latest project with Final Cut Pro, and the professional world took notice.  The rest of the decade saw FCP eating market share away from the competitors, and eventually dominating that market by a wide margin.

The release of version 10 basically reset the clock in 2011, and pros largely dismissed the first several versions.  How could a sub-$300 application compete with Final Cut Studio and its mature suite of applications, comprehensive features, and market dominance?  As I mentioned earlier, it’s widely believed that X sales have surpassed those of FCP 7’s entire installed base, so that could be seen as a success.

But when was FCP X’s turning point?  For me, it occurred earlier this week.  After spending a few months editing in X, I had several jobs that sent me back to FCP 7 and Premiere Pro CS6.  I immediately noticed how the user experience felt like a trip into the past.  Not bad, necessarily.  Premiere Pro is a really well-built application, and I can still work tremendously fast in FCP 7 thanks to a dozen years’ worth of muscle memory, but I was feeling strangely confined by the workflow.  I missed features that I had grown accustomed to.  The legacy feel of timeline navigation in 7 and CS6 was cumbersome.

2013 isn’t like 2003.  There won’t be another Cold Mountain moment, because our tools have been democratized to the point that any pro level Mac can have FCP 7, Premiere Pro, FCP X, and Avid Media Composer installed simultaneously.  We can no longer master one editing solution and forget the rest.  Final Cut Pro X provides an extremely compelling alternative to the status quo, and many people will experience their own turning points as they discover its value.

Two months with Final Cut Pro X

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.