Rethinking NLE design II

Many experienced editors look at the interface design of Final Cut Pro X and seemingly freak out at the radical change in front of them. The truth is that if you dig a bit deeper, many of the underlying concepts aren’t that different from Media Composer, Premiere Pro or FCP “legacy” after all. Different nomenclature and a modified way of working, but still built upon familiar foundations – IF you look for them.

Events and Projects

I think Apple needlessly confused the issue by the labels it chose, but in a broad sense, FCP X Events = FCP 7 Bins and FCP X Projects = FCP 7 Sequences. Once you grasp that, things become a bit more familiar. In FCP 1-7 a project file contained all the metadata (clips, timecodes, edit decisions, notes, etc.) for a given program you were editing. The actual media was ingested to a project folder within the Capture Scratch folder or linked from other folders on your hard drives. With FCP X, the metadata that was contained within a single project file in the past, has been distributed among FCP X’s Events and Project folders on your hard drives.

This is actually similar to the approach Avid takes, where each bin within a project is actually a self-contained data file on your hard drive. In the case of Avid, media can be stored in a common (separate) Avid MediaFiles folder or linked via AMA to other locations on your drives. The FCP X approach is somewhat similar, in that imported media can be stored in an Events folder or it can be linked to other locations. In the case of the latter, aliases are stored in the Events folder, which point to the location of the actual media.

Most editors tend to create bins within their projects to store edited sequences, but the software doesn’t really require this. FCP “legacy” and Media Composer sequences can be inside any bin in the project. In the case of FCP X, edited sequences can be started and stored in either an Event or the Project browser. Think of the latter as being exactly the same as using a dedicated Bin to hold your edited sequences. It’s a separate folder on the hard drive and it’s a dedicated portion of the FCP X interface designed to create, duplicate and export your edits.

Collections

Editors each have routines for how to organize media and to filter selections from a mass of footage down to manageable smaller chunks of media that you finally want to work with. All the major editing applications have ways to sort and label clips based on editor review and selection. Media Composer has a “custom sift” function that will show/hide clips in a bin based on editor criteria. This concept – along with similar concepts used in Apple Aperture, Adobe Lightroom and Bridge – were built into FCP X. By using metadata tags, you have the functional equivalent of routines you’d follow in other NLEs, such as subclipping, “custom sift” or manually dragging selections into bins.

The timeline construct

Changes in the timeline have done the most to set the forum discussions blazing.  In a traditional, track-based interface, the editor has to manage track-patching, target track selection, snapping and a/v clip linking. For new users, these can be very confounding concepts. Apple has sought to simplify or eliminate these issues in the way timelines have been designed in FCP X.

The basic timeline unit in FCP X is the Primary Storyline, which forms the “spine” of a piece.  If you are familiar with editing soundbite-driven projects, like documentaries or news stories, then you are probably already working the way FCP X “thinks”. For example, many editors cut these pieces by building up the story with a string of soundbites – pictures on V1 and corresponding audio on A1/A2. This is commonly called building a “radio cut” or the “A-roll” first. To this, they’ll add “B-roll” cutaway shots onto V2.

With FCP X, the soundbites are edited together as the Primary Storyline and audio and video stay interleaved as part of the same clip. This is their way of keeping clips in sync. Cutaway shots are edited as Connected Clips that appear above the Primary Storyline. If they have audio (“nat sound”) then that normally stays with the clip (also interleaved) instead of being patched to A3/A4, as would be the case in other NLEs. By using this structure – accompanied by specific edit command key strokes – Apple has eliminated the need for separately toggling track settings as you edit. In theory, this means faster editing with less encumbrance introduced by the interface itself.

Not all editing styles match this simplified structure, so a deviation is the Secondary Storyline. Any Connected Clips that need to be grouped together – for example, a series of shots with transitions in between – can be converted into a Secondary Storyline. This permits editors to work in a track-like fashion, when it’s appropriate for a selection of shots.

Lastly, FCP X seems to rely heavily on Compound Clips to reduce complexity in the Project window. FCP “legacy” has always let you nest clips or sequences inside other sequences. Compound Clips are similar, although in practice, function a bit more like a Container in Avid DS or a Collapse in Avid Media Composer. Compound Clips can be created from scratch inside an Event or combined from shots within a Project (sequence or timeline) to organize a set of shots or an entire edited sequence.

Magnetism

FCP X editors find the Magnetic timeline either a boon or a hindrance. Think of the Magnetic timeline as working with Snapping and Linked Selections always on in FCP “legacy”. Or maybe a lot like working with Sync-locks on in Media Composer. Ironically, re-arranging clips in a timeline “magnetically” stems back to early NLE design – notably Avid Media Composer’s Heads and Heads/Tails timeline view. This is a feature that’s still there today, which allows you to re-order basic timelines, like a series of shots in a storyboard (no “connected clips”, of course).

When you move a clip around, all the attached Connected Clips stay slaved to it and move with it. Trimming a clip on the Primary Storyline expands or contracts the timeline duration as in any other NLE, except that all Connected Clips also move, maintaining their relationship to the clips to which they are attached. Think of this as the same as an asymmetrical trim in FCP 7 or placing an “add edit” across all tracks in Media Composer and trimming. The results are effectively the same.

Working with the Magnetic timeline enabled isn’t right in all situations, so there’s the Position tool. With it selected, “magnetism” is disabled and moving clips around on the timeline will either overwrite adjacent clips or leave gaps (“slugs” or “filler” media) between clips. Working in this mode is best when you like to use the timeline as a working scratch pad to develop your editing ideas.

Views, viewers and layouts

Media Composer and Final Cut (up until X), let the editor store custom views and interface layouts. That’s missing in X, though not completely gone. First, there’s no standard source/record, 2-up editing view (Viewer/Canvas), but if you work with two displays and place your Events on the left in the List view, then effectively the single remaining clip filmstrip becomes that second viewer for clip sources. Furthermore, we have now seen that a second viewer can be opened (such as the Angle Viewer for multicam editing). So, it’s not out of the question that Apple could add this in a future update. Although you can’t store custom display states, it is pretty easy to toggle tools on and off as needed, including scopes, the Inspector pane, effects palettes and so on.

If you have two displays, there are actually several working layouts you can use during your work day. My standard layout places Events on the left and Viewer/Project on the right; however, there are times when it makes sense to change this. If I’m fine-tuning shots and effects on the timeline and don’t need a lot of access to events, I’ll place a full-screen Viewer on the left and the Events/Project windows on the right. This let’s me stretch the Project window higher to take over most of the screen, while still keeping a large Viewer in front of me. I’d still like a second viewer and the ability to save custom window configurations, but for now this covers a lot of my needs.

Apple’s Final Cut Pro X is a work-in-progress that will likely improve over time. As you look deeper under the skin, you’ll find that it’s not as foreign as many seem to think. Once you understand these similarities, you’ll find a shorter learning curve ahead of you.

Click here for Part I.

©2012 Oliver Peters

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