The new Final Cut Studio

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With little fanfare, Apple simply announced the new Final Cut Studio on their website, ending months of speculation in the online communities. Apple had prepped for this moment, however, with ready-made, free Ripple Training and Lynda.com tutorials, online documentation (no more paper manuals) and a number of extra downloads.

The new Final Cut Studio (not version 3 or the 2009 edition) contains Final Cut Pro, Motion, Soundtrack Pro, Color, Compressor, DVD Studio Pro, Cinema Tools and Qmaster. Noticeably absent is LiveType, which didn’t make the cut., because Apple is shifting its text animation efforts totally to Motion. If you prefer LiveType, upgrading a previous version of Final Cut Studio won’t overwrite LiveType and you can continue to use it.

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The macro view

The big highlights of this release are Blu-ray support and expanding the ProRes codec family. Blu-ray support is handled through a new Share function in Final Cut Pro 7 or the Job Action window in Compressor 3.5. These are both essentially the same thing. Blu-ray is just one of the choices, along with DVD, MobileMe, YouTube and others.

If you have a Blu-ray burner, then you can use a simple template in Share or Job Action to create a Blu-ray disc consisting of a single track with chapters. Apple took the bare minimum approach – enough for one-offs to show the client, but not enough to author a disc with several tracks and menus. Adobe Encore is still a better tool for that. In fact, DVD Studio Pro, which would have been the logical choice, was hardly touched and still doesn’t support Blu-ray, even at this small level. It’s received so little attention that I have to question its future.

I tested Compressor’s Job Action feature with my MobileMe account and was pleasantly surprised. I used the presets, let it handle the upload and after a short while, my video was online. The quality was excellent and playback was far smoother than most of the video at popular sites like YouTube and Vimeo. Apple is finally adding professional value to MobileMe. I also burned an AVCHD disc. This is essentially the same thing as a simple Blu-ray, except using standard red laser DVD-R media. Many Blu-ray players, like my Samsung, will play these discs, so it makes one wonder why Blu-ray won in the first place.

The ProRes family gained three new codecs: ProRes 422 (Proxy) – a lightweight offline editing resolution; ProRes 422 (LT) – a broadcast-quality, reduced bandwidth codec; and ProRes 4444 – a high-end codec for compositing, which also supports an alpha channel. By rounding out these options, Apple has clearly made ProRes their editing codec of choice in much the same way as Avid has with DNxHD. This gives the Pro Apps team a codec they can control independent of the rest of  the myriad of QuickTime codecs.

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The micro view – Final Cut Pro 7

Final Cut Pro 7 received the most new features and by itself, makes the upgrade worthwhile. I’ve been running it for a few weeks on real projects without any major issues. It is Intel-only (bye-bye G5s), but you will see very little initial difference between it and the previous version. Stability is worth a lot, of course, so it’s also important to note that this version is ready for Snow Leopard (Mac OS 10.6). Initial anecdotal information from others who have made that jump, is that it’s fine, but with a few issues, like XDCAM SxS card support and so on. It’s important to note, however, that FCP7 doesn’t appear to be specifically optimized for Snow Leopard. That will happen down the road.

It’s best to check out the Ripple and Lynda tutorials for more in-depth details of the new features, but the best one for me is the new speed change tools. This finally makes variable speed ramps functional within FCP. You can access this by clicking on the keyframe button at the bottom of the timeline to reveal the speed tick marks. Select a clip and right-mouse-click the keyframe track to open the contextual menu, which includes the change speed option. Once selected, a new menu opens to reveal a number of related parameters, such as speed and velocity interpolation at the beginning and end of the effect.

NLE manufacturers have been chasing camera manufacturers and this release is no exception. Final Cut adds native support for Panasonic’s AVC-Intra. Bring in your clips through the Log and Transfer module and Final Cut will ingest the footage. It copies the file, rewraps it with a QuickTime wrapper, but does not transcode the codec. Both the 50Mbps and 100Mbps flavors of AVC-I support real-time, multi-stream effects through FCP’s RT Extreme engine.

Other Final Cut Pro 7 improvements might seem minor, but are huge for many editors. The big one for me is that timeline markers finally ripple as you insert or delete clips. This feature can be toggled on and off based on your needs. There are also a few that were previously available from plug-in suppliers, but not from Apple. For instance, you now have a large Avid-style Timecode window.  Formerly this required Digital Heaven’s BigTime plug-in, but now it’s native. Same for alpha transitions. Final Cut now includes built in wipes in which a foreground element covers the transition as an A scene wipes to a B scene. idustrial revolution did this first with SupaWipe, but now it’s built-in. In fact, Apple offers a serious of alpha transition effects with companion media that may be downloaded from their online resource page.

If you are a fan of control surfaces, you’ll be happy to know that Final Cut Studio has now implemented the Euphonix EuCon protocol, in addition to Mackie. Panels like Euphonix’s MC Control and MC Mix could be used before, but under Mackie emulation. Now there is native control, meaning you gain more of the programmable features that these consoles offer.

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Motion 4

Motion is one of the few applications within Final Cut Studio that was originally created by Apple engineers and it continues to get better with each iteration. New improvements include 3D shadows and reflections, depth-of-field effects and new text tools. The latter picks up and expands upon what was done in LiveType. There is a new Glyph tool that lets you manipulate each individual letter in 3D space. If you install Final Cut Studio and opt to skip the content, don’t do so for Motion. Some of the content enables text behaviors, so by not installing the Motion content, these behaviors won’t appear in the pulldown menu. I also noticed that when working with LiveFonts and the new Glyph tool, I had more control of the characters than I did in LiveType.

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Soundtrack Pro 3

Final Cut Studio’s built-in DAW received a number of small but important features, including better Euphonix integration, noise reduction enhancements, direct recording into the Multitake Editor and advanced Time Stretch. The smallest, but most obvious new feature is Voice-Level Match. This will probably see the most use by editors. If you have a number of dialogue or voice-over clips at differing volume levels, you can now use Lift and Stamp tools to analyze and adjust the volume of one clip relative to the other.

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Color 1.5

Folks that find Color challenging won’t be happy. It still presents a very un-Mac-like environment. Nevertheless, this powerful grading tool has gone through some improvements for better round-tripping between Color and Final Cut Pro and to optimize rendering. The most welcome news is for RED One owners. Color finally breaks the frame size limitations of Final Cut Pro by supporting native 4K camera raw files from the RED One camera. You can render back to ProRes 4444, but you have to export DPX files for larger frames, if you intend to stay at 4K sizes.

As part of the across-the-board Euphonix support, Color will also support the new MC Color panel. This is a trackball-style colorist’s panel. In addition, Color 1.5 supports the Tangent Devices Wave, so two low cost controllers have been added to the more expensive models from JL Cooper and Tangent Devices.

To help first time users become more productive with Color, a set of 90 Color look presets have been created. These may be downloaded from Apple and installed as part of your Color toolset.

Gotchas

I’ve had few very hiccups in the weeks that I’ve run the new Final Cut Studio. The main issue I’ve hit is gamma handling with legacy codecs, like Photo-JPEG, a favorite for stock footage houses. Using QuickTime Player Pro to convert these to ProRes causes elevated gamma levels in Final Cut Pro 7; but, only after a filter was added and the clip rendered. The same clips converted via Compressor were fine. As Apple moves more down the QuickTime X path, I suspect conversion of legacy codecs through QuickTime 7 should be avoided. Use Compressor 3.5 instead.

[ EDIT: I’ve recently hit two other issues. It appears that things related to interlacing are somewhat “broken”. Horizontal text crawls and vertical text rolls now render as frame-based media, i.e. progressive and not interlaced. They will preview as interlaced and they used to render as interlaced, but now become frame-based once rendered. This appears to be true using Boris, the internal text tools and third party FxScript plugins. The second issue I’ve hit is between Compressor 3.5 and FCP7. Compressor can now identify source clips and part of this is field order. It appears that it randomly guesses Field Order wrong. I loaded several 1080i Upper Field clips and these were ID’ed as Upper, Lower or Progressive. As a result, conversions made to these files were subsequently incorrect. FCP7 also reads these files incorrectly, but sometimes in the opposite direction. ]

In the end, this is a healthy update with both small and large improvements. I’ve cherry-picked the most notable to talk about, but there are many more. Apple has lowered the base price to $999 or an upgrade at $299. If you already own an Intel Mac Pro or MacBook Pro and make your living using Final Cut Studio, then don’t think twice about  moving up.

© 2009 Oliver Peters   Written for NewBay Media LLC and Videography magazine