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Final Cut Pro X: The Awesome, The Unknown and The Unfortunate

[See bottom for updates since first publication.]

Based on Apple’s presentation and press coverage so far, there are three words to sum up my first impressions of the new Final Cut Pro X.: Awesome, Unknown and Unfortunate.

The Awesome

I’m not an editor. There are a lot of people who think they’re editors. They’re not. I know real editors and, I can tell you, I’m not one of them. Final Cut Pro has always been a utility to me to solve technical problems with video and bash bits of it together. A real editor is an artist. A deep collaborator in the storytelling process and somebody whose brilliance spans the gamut from cutting diamonds to polishing turds. I’ve worked with these editors, these people with real talent, on and off for decades from the old days of A/B roll linear editing with U-matic videotape decks through the early days of Avid and the fun of AVR compressed video that would make your iPhone movies look like Blu-ray by comparison and into the modern age of Final Cut Pro. What Apple has done with the NLE in Final Cut Pro X is, truly, revolutionary. Arguably it has the potential to be as much a transformation of video editing as the invention of the NLE. The new UI and the flexibility it offers will surely be jarring to existing users but it truly does stand to change the game completely.  It’s no small thing that FCP got a ground up re-write that means it can finally use all the RAM you can feed it, bludgeon all the cores you can offer it and, based on Apple’s claims, background process audio and video so well as to make the dreaded render dialog a thing of the past. ColorSync support, resolution independence, and non-destructive pre-filtering of audio and video are truly marvelous but the revolution is in really in two places: Metadata and the timeline.

Metadata: Setting aside the mechanical tedium of ingestion, correction and export, editing is about choices. It’s about knowing the often ten, twenty or even fifty or more times the total duration of your source footage and being able to choose, re-order and sweeten it all in to the perfect distillation of what matters. To do this as a true editor/artist, you must deeply know your source materials and . if you are working with a Director and Producer, be able to present them with choices to make to allow them to delude themselves into thinking they still have control over the final product while you help them convey their vision sometimes in spite of themselves. Apple’s new approach to media management finally makes the idea of logging as you go a realistic and, arguably better approach than the methodical review, log, tag and bin before you start cutting that a good editor must do now. Now, moments in a clip can be keyworded and are, essentially accessible by almost magical means as smart clips. Now the bins can live and breath as your project evolves without making a nightmarish mess. Content Aware metadata will make better movies.

The same essential change, the ability to be fluid in the process of evolving your project also applies the timeline. Gone is the need to have a methodical plan for sub-sequences and byzantine markers. Over are the days of being afraid to rethink something late in the cut for fear of breaking sync or losing something perfect in your undo buffer. Magnetic tracks, the almost magical flexibility afforded to creating and refining L and J cuts will make better movies. In particular, they will make better documentaries.

These changes will revolutionize video editing. People used to old ways of working will suffer from the shock of change. Those punk kids will think they’re editors just because they can cut together a show.  True talent. adaptable, thoughtful, true talent will delight, evolve and shock us with what these new approaches mean for video storytelling.

A lot of the ‘buzz’ I won’t link to seems to be folks objecting to the more approachable look of the UI and, to me anyway, seems to be people saying essentially “It doesn’t look intimidating anymore, it’s not a Pro tool and I won’t feel cool because I know how to use it.”  You can imagine I think that might miss the point. While there are surely a few things too-pretty-by-half about the eye candy in the UI, the fact is, Apple has brilliantly rethought the Non-Linear Editor UI in ways that will change video. The changes, and not just the buzzword compliant ones, will turn out to be revolutionary.

To understand why the changes in the UI are so profound, you need to see it demonstrated. Lucky us,  YouTube User  has posted two segments of  camcorder capture of Apple  previewing Final Cut Pro X at NAB: Part One and Part Two

Beyond the truly revolutionary UI and what it can mean for a fluid creative process, the price, $299 is, truly, awesome.

Unknown:  There are unknowns and some of them are a little unsettling. In truth, beyond one item below, most of what struck me as ‘unfortunate’ are things I am admittedly cynically speculating about from the list of unknowns.

The core  of those unknowns rests in what hasn’t yet been said about the Final Cut Studio and, more importantly, the functionality it offers.

(One article in Macworld suggests that there is hope for some or all of these apps so my angst about the unknowns may turn out to be much ado about nothing.)

Understanding the concern perhaps depends on a refresher of what’s available now. The current FInal Cut Pro product is Final Cut Studio 7 and it includes Final Cut Pro 7, Motion 4, SoundTrack Pro 3, Color 1.5, Compressor 3.5 and DVD Studio Pro 4.

Color, perhaps, has been made a moot concern by the incredible in-the-timeline color correction features in FCP X. Color is, by all accounts, a remarkably good color grading tool but it did demand a somewhat kludgy workflow. Most people almost certainly did their grading even in the now ‘old’ FCP. It’s just unknown how much of Color is now in Final Cut Pro itself or whether it will continue as a separate application. The way FCP was announced, it would seem it has no future on its own.

Soundtrack Pro also seems to have much of its ease of use for level control and time correction elegantly  stuffed into the timeline UI but, pending more information of about FCP X, it seems likely much of the other value in Soundtrack Pro, coring, will be lost and, if so, that will be a shame. STP’s loop-based scoring is something I have a tough time imagining being made part of the Final Cut  Pro X UI. It just wouldn’t seem to fit in well. Again, the “it’s $299, no upgrades, no confusion” message at the presentation implies SoundTrack Pro is ex software and just nailed to the perch.

Motion is another unknown. How much of what Motion did is now folded into Final Cut X? Will there still be a Motion application? Is Apple giving Adobe the pro-sumer Motion Graphics business in After Effects as an “I’m sorry” for finally telling everyone Flash is just too broken? So far, we just don’t know. AfterEffects is, even with Motion as a product often a necessary and valuable tool anyway. AfterEffects is just a more complete tool. Is Motion going away tragic? Perhaps not.

The real scary unknowns are Compressor and DVD Studio Pro.

Compressor in FCP Studio 7 just sucks.I really do wish I could be kinder. I have encoded thousands of clips and and hundreds of hours using all major versions of Cleaner, several of Squeeze Episode in addition to the using the encoding features of countless other tools. Compressor just sucks. It’s less approachable than Xcode, has lingering bugs and UI ambiguities and it is simply unable to reliably exploit the hardware it runs on. In many ways it remains, to this day inferior, to what Cleaner was about ten years ago before it languished for lack of love at AutoDesk, (Note that I link to neither.).

The problem is, Compressor  sucks a lot less than nothing. For Compressor to simply go away will leave a gaping hole in the tools Apple provides.  Is there a a batch processing functionality now added to FCP?  A means of managing encode queues across multiple machines now part of the Final Cut Pro UI?  Will it become necessary for more users to buy and learn Squeeze or Episode if they plan to do anything more serious than upload to YouTube and not care? It’s unkown at this point what has or will become of Compressor. I don’t have a warm fuzzy about it. I hear the words “third party opportunity” said in a NoCal accent in my head. I hear a pregnant pause after the word “So…” as I imagine myself asking about it. It worries me.

DVD Studio Pro. [Disclosure: I have made a substantial portion of my living authoring commercial DVDs some of which you have likely heard of and may have seen in stores or on Amazon if not actually watched.  I have helped teach DVD Studio Pro at Macworld Expo and I was even quoted in Apple glossy marketing materials. So I do feely disclose that I have a vested interest in DVD.]  Apple acts like it wants DVD dead. It feels like Apple has hired Boris and Natasha to go after DVD and drag it off to the secret gulag out back behind Whatsamatta U. The problem is, unlike Bullwinkle, DVD will continue to successfully pull rabbits out of its hat and remain useful and therefore, for film makers, necessary for at least a few more years. If DVD Studio Pro is dead, it’s virtually certain the functionality it offered hasn’t been folded in Final Cut Pro X. Adobe Encore may be the only practical/affordable option. Not a bad one, surely, but another UI and cost.

So far the Unknowns all look like they land, at least in part,  in the unfortunate camp.

What does appear to be squarely  in the land of the unfortunate is that it appears FCP X will only be available in the Mac App Store. That’s just bad. The Final Cut Studio 7 package actually includes some useful paper documentation and the earlier versions, full (and damned good ) paper manuals. The packaged product also includes good tutorials and the media to support them, a DVD full of Sound track Loops  and a full set of .pdf manuals. Sold via the Mac App Store there wont be seven DVD’s worth of application(s) and content to download.

Beyond that though is that no competently managed NLE in a professional production environment is even allowed on the public internet. I’m sure I will get feedback telling me I’m off base on this but I stand by it. If you run a post production operation and you are letting your editors surf the web, download applications and updates to their NLEs you are mis-managing your assets. Period. Buy them an iMac or a laptop for that. Selling Final Cut Pro X only via the app store is Apple not recognizing what ‘Pro’ really means. Will FCP X remain available via other channels? Only if the Pros demand it. Start demanding. Now.

———–UPDATE 4.15.11 ———–

This is a great piece on FCP X introduction and more support for some of my unknowns perhaps moving from unfortunate to awesome. I didn’t even touch the QuickTime question Larry asks but the fact that the blue Q wasn’t even mentioned by Apple is, to me telling: http://www.larryjordan.biz/app_bin/wordpress/archives/1452

As a side note, I read the comments on Larry’s post and continue to be amused by the techno-machismo evident in the fear of the comment writers that the tool might make things too easy.

It is a completely valid concern that a tool would be ‘dumbed down’ to make integration into pro workflows a problem or professional level functionality either removed or so deeply hidden as to be useless.  It’s utterly laughable to be worried that a tool you learned with difficulty will now be easier for others to master.

 

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  1. mpro1
    January 20th, 2012 at 15:10 | #1

    “I’m not an editor. There are a lot of people who think they’re editors. They’re not. I know real editors and, I can tell you, I’m not one of them. Final Cut Pro has always been a utility to me to solve technical problems with video and bash bits of it together. A real editor is an artist. A deep collaborator in the storytelling process and somebody whose brilliance spans the gamut from cutting diamonds to polishing turds.”

    I’ve always been a fan of Apple and while I’ve observed a number of shifts in the video editing space, I have to agree “A real editor is an artist” and his storytelling chops will always be at the heart of great content.

    I’ve worked with these editors, these people with real talent, on and off for decades from the old days of A/B roll linear editing with U-matic videotape decks through the early days of Avid and the fun of AVR compressed video that would make your iPhone movies look like Blu-ray by comparison and into the modern age of Final Cut Pro. What Apple has done with the NLE in Final Cut Pro X is, truly, revolutionary. Arguably it has the potential to be as much a transformation of video editing as the invention of the NLE. The new UI and the flexibility it offers will surely be jarring to existing users but it truly does stand to change the game completely. It’s no small thing that FCP got a ground up re-write that means it can finally use all the RAM you can feed it, bludgeon all the cores you can offer it and, based on Apple’s claims, background process audio and video so well as to make the dreaded render dialog a thing of the past. ColorSync support, resolution independence, and non-destructive pre-filtering of audio and video are truly marvelous but the revolution is in really in two places: Metadata and the timeline.

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