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.

Final Cut Pro X 10.1

It’s finally been released, alongside the new Mac Pro.  Shipping times for the Mac Pro have quickly slipped from December to January and now February.  Apple tends to under-promise with delivery estimates, but this isn’t good news for anyone hoping to get the boxes installed by the end of the year for tax purposes.

A flood of information is now available about FCPX 10.1, and the best roundup I’ve found is located at Alex Gollner’s blog.  I look forward to digging into all the resources out there, but I have a few thoughts based on what I’ve gleaned so far:

  • Apple backtracks on the Event/Project paradigm. Having your source material and edited projects in two distinct locations didn’t make sense to a lot of people, and Apple has come up with Libraries as an answer.  Libraries are centralized locations that hold all pieces of a particular job.  I’ve been using SAN Locations on an Xsan, which is functionally very similar (SAN Location = Library for the most part), so much so that Apple has removed SAN Locations from 10.1.  Also gone is the sliding-left-and-right Project Library, a piece of eye candy I’m happy to do without. It is worth noting that Libraries are packages and not folders.  Double clicking on them in the Finder will launch FCP, and not show you the contents inside.
  • Mavericks is a requirement to install Final Cut Pro 10.1.  If you have FCP 10.0.x installed and are not seeing the new release in the Mac App Store, you’re probably still running Mountain Lion or earlier.  Click the “Show Incompatible App Updates” text link and FCP should appear. Releasing 10.9 Mavericks for free was an attempt to reduce the barriers of entry and get as many people current as possible.  There are also technical underpinnings in Mavericks that the new FCP takes advantage of.  People on older gear or those who can’t upgrade for other reasons will have to sit this one out for a while.
  • Some FCP7 features are back and have been improved upon.  In “classic” FCP, you had colored indicators on clips when a shot was duplicated in your timeline.  FCP 10.1 appears to tag the sections of your source material that have been used already, so you don’t have to cut the clip in to see if it already lives somewhere else.  There are other niceties like “through edits” (a visual indicator that shows when you’ve added a cut to a continuous piece of footage) and audio-only transitions.  Oh, and Fit to Fill is back!  Thank you.
  • Skeuomorphism continues its retreat.  The default “linen” background is now a slate grey (or is that space grey?) and the clip icons have a less rounded feel.  Overall it feels more “Pro” in its look.

This is the most significant update to Final Cut in well over a year, and paired with the new Mac Pro it will make for a very interesting 2014.

FCPX and breaking with the past

As FCP7 continues its long slow march into the sunset, I still find myself using it for one crucial task: creating HDCAM masters.  I’ve been editing in FCPX, exporting master ProRes files, and dropping them into a Final Cut Pro 7 sequence (with color bars and countdown slates) for delivery to tape.  It works, but it’s just one more hoop to jump through.

With the impending release of the new Mac Pro running Mavericks, I’ve been wondering just how well FCP7 will perform on it.  Back in 2011 Apple promised support for 7 in Lion, but has not extended that support for Mountain Lion or Mavericks in the years since.  It’s also worth noting that with OS X 10.9 Mavericks Apple has deprecated the QuickTime APIs that Final Cut Pro 7 relies on.  What does it mean to be deprecated?  Here’s Apple to explain:

From time to time, Apple adds deprecation macros to APIs to indicate that those APIs should no longer be used in active development. When a deprecation occurs, it is not an immediate end of life to the specified API. Instead, it is the beginning of a grace period for transitioning off that API and onto newer and more modern replacements.

As a developer, it is important that you avoid using deprecated APIs in your code as soon as possible. At a minimum, new code you write should never use deprecated APIs. And if you have existing code that uses deprecated APIs, you should update that code as soon as possible

So the writing is on the wall, but in the meantime there are plenty of editors who still need to deliver “legacy” videotape to their customers.  Here are a few solutions I’ve been considering:

  • Keep one legacy Mac on the network running 10.7 and FCP7, and feed final QuickTime files to it to go to tape.
  • Use the third party app that ships with the capture card (or Thunderbolt box) I’m using for capture and output now.  I’ve been testing Blackmagic’s Media Express and it’s pretty solid.
  • Hope my clients stop asking for tapes.

I’m kidding about that last point, but only a little.  Among my customers there’s really only one network that still asks for tape, and they are talking seriously about going all file-based delivery in 2014.

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.

Final Cut Server X?

I’m a big fan of Alex Gollner’s efforts to dig into Final Cut Pro X (and iMovie) to look for clues about upcoming versions.  He’s also kept a close eye on Apple’s support site, and has noticed something interesting:

Although the most release note for Final Cut Server was archived in July, Apple are still making changes to FCS support documents. Hopefully to prepare for a December resurrection.

It’s a (very) long shot, but an intriguing one regardless.  Alex has already found clues in iMovie 2013 that point to multi-user editing in FCP X 10.1.  December can’t get here fast enough.