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.

Apple’s definition of “Pro”

post by Ken Segall has made the rounds this week, where he describes a moment behind closed doors where Steve Jobs considered abandoning the pro market.

I hope you’re sitting down for this, but Steve Jobs did in fact once consider that very option.

This was back in the days when iMac had established itself as a global bestseller. During one of the agency’s regular meetings with Steve, he shared that he was considering killing the pro products.

His rationale was as you might expect: consumer products have an unlimited upside, while pro products are aimed at a niche market that eats up major resources.

This obviously never came to pass, but some would argue that Apple has strayed too far from what the industry considers “pro” with Final Cut Pro X and the new cylindrical Mac Pro.

Some won’t like it, but basically it’s the difference between Final Cut Pro 7 and Final Cut Pro X.

In FCP7, the controls are rich and deep. As a consequence, getting proficient with the app is a serious undertaking.

FCPX is very powerful, but less daunting and more seductive — streamlining and automating some of its advanced capabilities.

There seems to be a correlation for many where “pro” must equate to “impenetrably difficult for the non-pro.”  Yes, Apple has made the basics of Final Cut Pro approachable for someone new to editing, but that doesn’t automate the process of ideas and creativity.

The real question is whether or not Apple has chosen the right path for the future of its professional products.  They could have moved the feature set of FCP 7 to a modern 64 bit architecture, darkened the color scheme a bit, and called it a day. Pros would have been happy to not re-learn what they already knew, and there would be a bump in performance and better codec support.  This is similar to the course taken with Premiere Pro- evolutionary but not revolutionary.

Instead, Final Cut Pro X is more than a re-write.  It’s an entirely new set of concepts with a lower barrier of entry for the new or intermediate editor.  This is not to say that the “pro” isn’t in Final Cut Pro anymore.  It’s there, just beneath the surface, perhaps most importantly in the new attention to database driven organization.  Anyone working in X who has sifted through footage marking favorites or tagging keywords will attest to the power and flexibility of the software.  The timeline has an index that allows the editor to quickly find or isolate clips based on a host of criteria.  Roles are an easy way to organize files for export to post audio.  The list goes on.

Apple’s definition of “pro” has evolved to allow non-professionals easier access to the basics, while also giving seasoned veterans the speed and tools they need to create great work.  This gives Apple two areas of growth instead of one, and it’s hard to see a downside for anyone in this equation.

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.