The NLE that wouldn’t die

It’s been 18 months since Apple launched Final Cut Pro X and the debate over it continues to rage without let-up. Apple likely has good sales numbers to deem it a success, but if you look around the professional world, with a few exceptions, there has been little or no adoption. Yes, some editors are dabbling with it to see where Apple is headed with it – and yes, some independent editors are using it for demanding projects, including commercials, corporate videos and TV shows. By comparison, though, look at what facilities and broadcasters are using – or what skills are required for job openings – and you’ll see a general scarceness of FCP X.

Let’s compare this to the launch of the original Final Cut Pro (or “legacy”) over 12 years ago. In a similar fashion, FCP was the stealth tool that attracted individual users. The obvious benefit was price. At that time a fully decked out Avid Media Composer was a turnkey system costing over $100K. FCP was available as software for only $999. Of course, what gets lost in that measure, is the Avid price included computer, monitors, wiring, broadcast i/o hardware and storage. All of this would have to be added to the FCP side and in some cases, wasn’t even possible with FCP. In the beginning it was limited to DV and FireWire only. But there were some key advantages it introduced at the start, over Avid systems. These included blend modes, easy in-timeline editing, After Effects-style effects and a media architecture built upon the open, extensible and ubiquitous QuickTime foundation. Over the years, a lot was added to make FCP a powerful system, but at its core, all the building blocks were in place from the beginning.

When uncompressed SD and next HD became the must-have items, Avid was slow to respond. Apple’s partners were able to take advantage of the hardware abstraction layer to add codecs and drivers, which expanded FCP’s capabilities. Vendors like Digital Voodoo, Aurora Video Systems and Pinnacle made it possible to edit something other than DV. Users have them to thank – more so than Apple – for growing FCP into a professional tool. When FCP 5 and 6 rolled around, the Final Cut world was pretty set, with major markets set to shift to FCP as the dominant NLE. HD, color correction and XML interchange had all been added and the package was expanded with an ecosystem of surrounding applications. By the time of the launch of the last Final Cut Studio (FCP 7) in 2009, Apple’s NLE seemed unstoppable. Unfortunately FCP 7 wasn’t as feature-packed as many had expected. Along with reticence to chuck recently purchased PowerMac G5 computers, a number of owners simply stayed with FCP 5 and/or FCP 6.

When Apple discusses the number of licensees, you have to parse how they define the actual purchases. While there are undoubtedly plenty of FCP X owners, the interpretation of sales is that more seats of FCP X have been sold than of FCP 7. Unfortunately it’s hard to know what that really means. Since it’s a comparison to FCP 7 – and not every FCP 1-6 owner upgraded to 7 – it could very well be that the X number isn’t all that large. Even though Apple EOL’ed (end of life) Final Cut Studio with the launch of FCP X, it continued to sell new seats of the software through its direct sales and reseller channels. In fact, Apple seems to still have it available if you call the correct 800 line. When Apple says it has sold more of X than of 7, is it counting the total sales (including those made after the launch) or only before? An interesting statistic would be the number of seats of Final Cut Studio (FCP 7) sold since the launch of FCP X as compared to before. We’ll never know, but it might actually be a larger number. All I know is that the system integrators I personally know, who have a long history of selling and servicing FCP-based editing suites, continue to install NEW FCP 7 rooms!

Like most drastic product changes, once you get over the shock of the new version, you quickly realize that your old version didn’t instantly stop working the day the new version launched. In the case of FCP 7, it continues to be a workhorse, albeit the 32-bit architecture is pretty creaky. Toss a lot of ProRes 4444 at it and you are in for a painful experience. There has been a lot of dissatisfaction with FCP X among facility owners, because it simply changes much of the existing workflows. There are additional apps and utilities to fill the gap, but many of these constitute workarounds compared to what could be done inside FCP 7.

Many owners have looked at alternatives. These include Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer/Symphony, Media 100 and Autodesk Smoke 2013. If they are so irritated at Apple as to move over to Windows hardware, then the possibilities expand to include Avid DS, Grass Valley Edius and Sony Vegas. Several of these manufacturers have introduced cross-grade promotional deals to entice FCP “legacy” owners to make the switch. Avid and Adobe have benefited the most in this transition. Editors who were happy with Avid in the past – or work in a market where Avid dominates – have migrated back to Media Composer. Editors who were hoping for the hypothetical FCP 8 are often making Adobe Premiere (and the Production Premium bundle) their next NLE of choice. But ironically, many owners and users are simply doing nothing and continuing with FCP 7 or even upgrading from FCP 6 to FCP 7.

Why is it that FCP 7 isn’t already long gone or on the way out by now? Obviously the fact that change comes slowly is one answer, but I believe it’s more than that. When FCP 1.0 came on the scene, its interface and operational methodology fit into the existing NLE designs. It was like a “baby Avid” with parts of Media 100 and After Effects dropped in. If you cut on a Media Composer, the transition to FCP was pretty simple. Working with QuickTime made it easy to run on most personal machines without extra hardware.  Because of its relatively open nature and reliance in industry-standard interchange formats (many of which were added over time), FCP could easily swap data with other applications using EDLs, OMFs, text-based log files and XML. Facilities built workflows around these capabilities.

FCP X, on the other hand, introduced a completely new editing paradigm that not only changed how you work, but even the accepted nomenclature of editing. Furthermore, the UI design even did things like reverse the behavior of some keystrokes from how similar functions had been triggered in FCP 7. In short, forget everything you know about editing or using other editing software if you want to become proficient with FCP X. That’s a viable concept for students who may be the professional editors of the future. Or, for non-fulltime editors who occasionally have to edit and finish professional-level productions as one small part of their job. Unfortunately, it’s not a good approach if you want to make FCP X the ubiquitous NLE in established professional video environments, like post houses, broadcasters and large enterprise users.

After all, if I’m a facility manager and you can’t show me a compelling reason why this is better and why it won’t require a complete internal upheaval, then why should I change? In most shops, overall workflow is far more important than the specific features of any individual application. Gone are the differences in cost, so it’s difficult to make a compelling argument based on ROI. You can no longer make the (false) argument of 1999 that FCP will only cost you 1% of the cost of an Avid. Or use the bogus $50K edit suite ad that followed a few years later.

Which brings us to the present. I started on Avid systems as the first NLE where I was in the driver’s seat. I’ve literally cut on dozens of edit systems, but for me, Final Cut Pro “legacy” fit my style and preferences best. I would have loved a 64-bit version with a cleaned-up user interface, but that’s not what FCP X delivers. It’s also not exactly where Premiere Pro CS6 is today. I deal with projects from the outside – either sent to me or at shops where I freelance. Apple FCP 7 and Avid Media Composer continue to be what I run into and what is requested.

Over the past few months I’ve done quite a few complex jobs on FCP X, when I’ve had the ability to control the decision. Yet, I cannot get through any complex workflow without touching parts of Final Cut Studio (“legacy”) to get the job done. FCP X seems to excel at small projects where speed trumps precision and interoperability. It’s also great for individual owner-operators who intend to do everything inside FCP X. But for complex projects with integrated workflows, FCP 7 is still decidedly better.

As was the case with early FCP, where most of the editing design was there at the start, I now feel that with the FCP X 10.0.6 update, most of its editing design is also in place. It may never become the tool that marches on to dominate the market. FCP “legacy” had that chance and Apple walked away from it. It’s dubious that lightning will strike twice, but 18 months is simply too short of a timeframe in which to say anything that definitive. All I know is that for now, FCP 7 continues as the preferred NLE for many, with Media Composer a close second. Most editors, like old dogs, aren’t too eager to learn new tricks. At least that’s what I conclude, based on my own ear-to-the-ground analysis. Check back this time next year to see if that’s still the case. For now, I see the industry continuing to live in a very fractured, multi-NLE environment.

©2012 Oliver Peters

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