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.

FCP X and the Future of Editing

This article by David Leitner at Filmmaker magazine is an excellent read for a film and video editor in 2012.

On the software side, why perpetuate dual source/record windows from 1970s tape editing, or interface metaphors adapted in the 1980s from film editing (Avid Media Composer), or 1990s timeline design (Final Cut Pro 7)? Why not exploit this 64-bit great leap forward in speed and processing to rethink, perhaps even reinvent, editing for the coming file-based century?

It’s been almost a year and a half since Apple bungled the launch of Final Cut Pro X.  Since then the software has quietly improved over time, receiving 6 updates and chipping away at the list of missing “must have” features, and I think Apple will be vindicated for their decision to wipe the slate clean and start over.  It was blasphemy in June 2011 to think that FCP X couldn’t capture from broadcast videotape, but today it’s almost a quaint novelty when I do just that.  It’s a similar story for the lowly edit decision list.  What do you mean I can’t generate an EDL in X?  As with most remaining holes in Final Cut Pro, there’s an app for that.  Third parties have stepped in to meet practically any niche need that the pro editor might have.

So, what tool am I using to edit today?  Final Cut Pro 7.  But I’m not happy about it.  As editors we are never really “done” with what we’re working on, which makes shifting to a new platform a great big challenge.  I currently have several ongoing jobs that span months.  The shift is coming, however, and I’m ready for it.

R.I.P. Avid Studio for iPad…

…and hello Pinnacle Studio for iPad.  TUAW:

You might get a surprise when you open Avid Studio on the iPad today. A pop-up message advises users that the app won’t get any more support. Users are urged to download Pinnacle Studio, a similar high-end editing app owned by Corel.

Avid sold off a large swath of its prosumer products earlier this year in the hopes of improving their bottom line.  Avid Studio was an interesting foray into touch-based editing, and it’s good to see the product isn’t going away.

Avid to sell off consumer businesses

Tess Stynes for MarketWatch:

Avid Technology Inc. agreed to sell its consumer audio and video product lines and plans further streamlining efforts as the company aims to concentrate on its media enterprise and professional customers.

I fear that this marks the beginning of the end for the company that pioneered digital nonlinear editing and dominated that market throughout the 90s.  With the rise of Final Cut Pro (and, to some degree, Premiere) in the past decade, Avid was slow to react and clung to the still-profitable but dying business model of selling expensive turnkey systems with proprietary hardware.  They finally relented and opened up their software to third party hardware in the last year, but it is too little, too late.

Most telling is this:

Avid in April reported that its first-quarter loss widened amid a revenue decline primarily attributed to weakness in the “creative enthusiast” portion of its business.

I’m not exactly sure what they mean by “creative enthusiast,” but in this context I’m pretty sure it equates to “people who aren’t willing to pay five or six figures for our products.”  That’s basically everyone.  That market was washed away around 2003.

If you look at Avid’s stock performance over the past few years you’ll see that they reached a 52 week high in June 2011, the month that FCP X hit the market.  Avid pounced on the opportunity (rightfully so) and managed to boost sales among professionals who panicked over what Apple had done to their flagship editing product.  Since then, however, sales and their stock price have been in steady decline.  Say what you will about Final Cut Pro X, but it remains the second highest grossing product in the Mac App Store, and it is undoubtedly eating Avid’s lunch at the low and mid-range of the market.

Apple’s Mac Pro mistake

This past Monday, June 11, I was able to attend the Adobe CS6 Roadshow in Washington, DC.  I spent the day in training sessions for editors considering a move from their current editing platform to Adobe’s offerings of Premiere Pro and After Effects, along with a whole slew of Final Cut Studio-like tools that come in the package.

The event was sponsored by HP, so it was not surprising that the day had a decidedly PC slant.  There was much talk from the presenters about throughput, processing speeds, expandability, and performance.  But when the first instructor asked for a show of hands from those of us who use PCs in our workflow, less than 10% of the hands went up.

Coincidentally, June 11 was also the day of Apple’s WWDC keynote, and Tim Cook and company spent several hours talking about their wildly successful lineup of Mac and iOS devices.  The signature unveiling was the new MacBook Pro with a Retina Display, slimmer form factor, and a simplified design that removed the optical drive and many ports.  The runner ups for the spotlight were OS X Mountain Lion and iOS, both of which show off some very nice features and move closer to each other in terms of look and feel.

What was not mentioned in the keynote was any improvement to Apple’s long-languishing Mac Pro desktop, whose current model is about to hit its second birthday.  The rumor mill was fired up just prior to the event after some new model numbers for the Pro were leaked, prompting many to wrongly assume that big changes were coming.  Instead, Apple quietly bumped the specs on the two year old model with slightly faster processors and adding a server configuration in the same form factor.  The Mac Pro still stands alone as the only Mac without a Thunderbolt port.

After a day of training sessions at the Roadshow, I took a spin around the exhibitor hall to see what the vendors had to show.  Most presentations were running on PCs (don’t forget who the event’s primary sponsor was) but virtually everyone working there had an iPad or a MacBook Pro behind the table with them for their use.  That’s when it really hit me: many pros running Windows PCs do so because they have to, but use Macs because they want to.

And I would say that if you asked my fellow attendees, most would say they would want to be using a new Mac Pro to make their living.  The irony here is that the Mac software at the high end has never been stronger.  Autodesk just released the first Mac-only preview release of Smoke 2013, and both Avid and Adobe have bent over backwards to achieve feature parity for the Mac versions of Media Composer, Symphony, and Premiere Pro.

I see shades of last June in the headlines this week: Apple was expected to release something new for the professional market (last year it was FCP X, this year it was the Mac Pro), the “release” raises the ire of the faithful, and Apple backpedals slightly.  This year the backpedaling comes in the form of an email from Tim Cook, who assures a customer that great things are coming for Apple desktop workstations…at the end of 2013.

Apple must truly believe that a slim portable or iMac with a Thunderbolt port really fits the need of almost everyone who uses a Mac, and they are buying themselves some time for the rest of us to realize that.  As a result, Apple will probably lose an extremely small fraction of their user base, mostly comprised of people who bought their clunky (in retrospect) gear in the 90s in the hopes that Apple would stay afloat.  At the same time their worldwide market share looks poised for more explosive growth.  It’s Apple’s world now, and the pro market just lives in it.

Avid steps into iOS video editing

Apple and Avid are two companies that have a storied history with each other that goes back decades.  Things started out amicably enough with Avid shipping industry changing nonlinear editing systems exclusively on the Mac platform.  After Avid announced that they were dropping their Apple based products altogether and shifting entirely to Windows in the late 90s, Apple responded by accelerating development of Final Cut Pro.  Avid backed down on their threat, but it was too late: FCP had a decade of explosive growth and became the market leader by the time Final Cut Pro X was released and shook up the playing field again (although not quite the way Apple had hoped).

Yesterday Avid released a $4.99 iOS video editing app called Avid Studio, a direct competitor to the identically priced iMovie from Apple.  According to Macworld:

The launch of Avid Studio for iPad means that the fierce desktop video-editing rivalry between Avid and Apple’s Final Cut Pro—both companies routinely tout the number of Oscar and Golden Globe nominees who use their editing products—is now playing out on Apple’s own tablet playing grounds. Avid is being aggressive, suggesting its new iPad app is powerful enough for professional use; Apple’s iMovie is aimed more at consumer-level editors—the company doesn’t offer a tablet version of its Final Cut Pro app.

One thing is for certain: the fierce competition between these two companies has resulted in some really great solutions for professional (and now consumer) editors, and it’s just fun to watch them duke it out.

Final Cut Pro loses another (big) customer

AppleInsider reports that reality TV pioneer Bunim/Murray Productions is abandoning FCP X in favor of Avid:

“Due to the large volume of media generated by our reality shows, we needed to re-evaluate our editing and storage solutions. At the same time, we were looking for a partner who would understand our long-term needs,” said Mark Raudonis, senior vice president of Post Production at Bunim/Murray.

Raudonis was a big proponent of the now defunct Final Cut Server, and I had a conversation with him about FCP workflow a few years back when The Real World was shooting in Washington, DC.  This is most definitely small potatoes for Apple’s bottom line, but professional editors are taking notice of shifts like this from the larger players in the industry.