Will CS5 and MC5 toast FCP?

OK, now that I have your attention, let me answer the question. Without a doubt – no – at least not for a while. There sure is a lot of sturm und drang on the Internet lately about the supposed fate of Final Cut Pro. It started around NAB-time this year, partially due to the lack of an Apple presence (everyone is supposed to know they’ve sworn off trade shows), partially due to rumors of layoffs among some of the ProApps team and then fueled by Steve Job’s cryptic e-mail to a blogger that the next version would be “awesome”.

It caught fire again after another dubious rumor suggesting that the next version of FCP would in some way be “dumbed down” to appeal to “prosumers”. Even though more analytical blog posts have tried to inject some reason into the argument, the rants from various camps (usually Avid vs. FCP) persist in part because of Apple’s legendary secrecy and probably a fair of amount of editors hoping to enjoy some schadenfreude, should Apple falter.

Both Adobe and Avid have now released really superb updates to their NLEs. This comes unanswered by Apple, so for the moment, there’s a window of opportunity for Premiere Pro CS5 and Media Composer 5 to gain ground. Apple released the “new” Final Cut Studio last year, which focused on FCP7. By all accounts this was most likely a stop-gap release on the way to the next version. Many consider it more akin to FCP 6.5. On the other hand, I felt that some of the FCP7 changes, like the new speed tools, were significant improvements to the product.

Whatever your thoughts, we are now three years past the introduction of Final Cut Studio 2 (FCP 6), which was a huge release. Since that time, Apple has had phenomenal success with its “i” devices, so many professional editors who make their living with FCP are feeling a distinct lack of Apple love.

I’m sure you’ve heard company execs and marketers toss out the “game changer” term (I hate that) for CS5 and MC5. I doubt that’s the case. Carrying the metaphor farther, the emotional momentum is still with Apple, so it’s their “game” to lose. Quite frankly, calling something a “game changer” is right up there with Steve Jobs calling the next version of FCP “awesome”. It really doesn’t mean very much.

There’s been plenty of post news this year, such as the release of Autodesk Smoke for Mac, an upcoming open source version of Lightworks, as well strong showings by EDIUIS and Vegas Pro. Nevertheless, the “three As” – Apple, Avid and Adobe – dominate the creative desktop editing space. For now, Adobe and Avid have taken the leadership role in NLE innovation, so let me discuss how these three stack up against each other. (Expect more formal reviews of Avid Media Composer 5 and Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 in future posts.      EDIT: Avid Media Composer 5 review added here. Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 review added here. )

Avid Media Composer 5

This is a milestone software version for Avid’s flagship creative editing tool. I’d bet that the Avid/FCP split among professional editors is about 50/50. A lot of the FCP cutters are former Avid editors or Avid facilities who turned to FCP due to cost or features. Avid has aggressively responded to both challenges of late, especially with this version. The new Smart Tool lets editors work the timeline much as they do in FCP. This is a change that primarily attracts those editors who have preferred FCP over Media Composer – precisely because of direct, in-timeline editing. Traditional Avid editors can disable Smart Tool if they like, so both sides are happy.

Thanks to AMA, Media Composer now supports more professional camera formats as native media than any other NLE. Plus you can bring in various QuickTime formats, including ProRes and H.264 (from HDSLRs). The net result is that there’s less fuss getting files into Media Composer and it allows those who want to organize media outside of the NLE a more freeform style of working.

I do see some dangers with AMA, because the tendency will be to look at it as dragging a folder to the browser, as you do with FCP. AMA doesn’t work that way. Instead, think of it as more like FCP’s Log and Transfer module. You can edit direct from an AMA bin, but Avid HIGHLY RECOMMENDS that you pick selects and then transcode the media into an Avid format. One of the issues I found is that AMA doesn’t pick up reel numbers from QuickTime movies.

In some experimentation, I tried to move an FCP sequence into MC5 and then relink to the source ProRes media (brought in through AMA). I found this almost impossible to do without serious workarounds. If you like to work this way, then Avid’s approach is still a weak solution compared with FCP or Premiere Pro. On the plus side, though, I was able to move an Avid project with media on an external drive (using AMA bins), to another computer. It had no problem in instantly loading the correct media. Another AMA issue is that you can’t cut a sequence with AMA-based source media and then send an AAF or OMF file to ProTools. This is something I can do with FCP, but MC5 requires a transcode before that can happen.

Avid Media Composer has been built around twin pillars of strong narrative tools and offline/online workflows. We are moving away from tape-based post, but since Media Composer started with a strong tape-oriented toolset, it will remain the best of the bunch as long as tape is still with us. Clearly no one is putting any new R&D effort into tape-based workflows. Unfortunately, on the narrative side of things, Avid has chosen to drop ScriptSync as an included tool. ScriptSync involves licensed Nexidia phonetic technology, so Avid has opted to break this feature out as a separate $995 option. I realize why Avid did this, but it was a key marketing pitch to feature and documentary editors and a real edge for these workflows over every other NLE.

At NAB, AV3 Software showed GET, a phonetic search application using the same Nexidia engine. GET will be released later this year and the target price is supposed to be about $500. ScriptSync’s toolset is far more advanced than GET and a superior time saver for editors, but this still leaves a serious price difference and a perception problem. FCP + GET is less than half the price of MC5 + ScriptSync. I’m not sure that’s a good competitive position for Avid to be in.

The key to Avid’s future is education. Many university film programs have shifted to Final Cut Pro and it’s up to Avid to win them back. Towards that goal, Avid has the single most aggressive academic pricing of any NLE. Students can buy a full-powered version of Media Composer for just under $300, which includes four years of upgrades. If you are a film or editing student who hopes to hit the big leagues one day, you’d be foolish to pass that up!

Adobe Premiere Pro CS5

Adobe’s key strength is performance and suite integration. The big news is how well Premiere Pro CS5 has been optimized for modern workstations, notably 64-bit operation and taking advantage of GPU power. This has been dubbed the Mercury Playback Engine. Although NVIDIA ,with its CUDA technology, has been closely associated with this enhancement, Mercury is actually a set of optimization steps, not simply linked to having a CUDA-enabled NVIDIA card installed. You still get most of the benefits without one of the qualified NVIDIA cards. Native media access (using Adobe’s Media Browser) is quite similar to Avid Media Access (AMA), but with the added advantage of resolution independence.

Premiere Pro CS5 has never sparked the interest of too many leading editors, but it has a strong following with many independent and corporate producers. Adobe has been pushing hard into the broadcast arena – including working closely with the BBC to develop and refine new features. Some of these include Adobe’s own speech-to-text technology, P2 integration and moving metadata through the complete production-to-delivery pipeline, based on open source Dublin Core. Maybe CS5 will create critical mass for Adobe.

Most people buy one of the Adobe application suites that includes Premiere Pro, but it’s usually the other software that seals the deal. Many FCP and Avid editors already own Premiere Pro, simply because they bought After Effects and Photoshop as part of Production Premium or the Master Collection. CS5 is particularly strong with P2, HDSLR media and RED raw files, so I can envision even the staunchest FCP or Avid fan turning to Premiere Pro CS5 whenever they need to tackle one of these projects.

When it comes to RED, I have to give Adobe credit for making true 4K, native post on the desktop viable. It’s still a bit clunky in either CS5 or MC5, so I can’t really recommend doing large, complex projects this way. The offline/online workflow still fits this model best, which makes the Avid approach the more compelling solution (for me) with RED projects. Media Composer plus Avid DS provide a great end-to-end RED workflow.

A big pitch to Avid and FCP editors is Premiere Pro’s XML and AAF import/export functionality. Unfortunately I don’t find that to work well. Automatic Duck is still the way to go if you really want to do this right. I’ve had some luck moving FCP XML into Premiere Pro, but it breaks down when non-timecoded sound files are involved (double-system audio, music tracks, etc.). AAF import from Avid has always failed for me and frequently crashes the app.

Right now the key reason to use Premiere Pro CS5 is performance. Their entire pipeline is optimized for file-based work. During editing, nearly everything stays real-time (though you may have to throttle back screen resolution), so your creative flow isn’t interrupted by rendering. Then when you are done, “export media”, which launches a version of Adobe Media Encoder. Set the target delivery file(s), which renders any effect as part of the export. The Mercury Playback Engine, as well as NVIDIA’s CUDA technology, also kicks in as part of any sequence export to speed things up.

Apple Final Cut Pro

This brings us to Final Cut Pro/Final Cut Studio. I have ZERO inside info, so these remarks are nothing other than opinion and speculation. In its present state, FCP7 (and even earlier versions) gets the job done for most clients and editors who use it. In fact, far more than “gets the job done” – as the various spots, shows, documentaries and digital feature films I’ve done with FCP will attest.

Truthfully, Final Cut has been a rather solid NLE since version 3.0, although most Avid editors have only begrudgingly acknowledged FCP’s power with more recent versions. Owners have set up their operation around the Final Cut Studio apps, so even if it gets long-in-the-tooth, most are going to hold on and wait for an update. After all, FCP is not going to get worse, but getting better – and when – is the unknown. If I’m completely wrong and Apple releases a Final Cut Studio update by the end of this year, then we all know it will be received with cheers, regardless of how strong the new tools might be.

Apple has always been good about making 80/20 software. By that I mean that it has 80-90% of the features of more advanced, complex and/or expensive software and it serves the needs of 80-90% of all the potential users. Apple creates enough of an open environment that third party developers jump in to provide the features in that remaining 10-20% niche. As I’ve discussed, this makes Final Cut Studio more of a “platform” than other competing NLEs. I think that’s clear to see in something like the adoption of Apple ProRes as an acquisition format.

Apple excels at software that’s friendly and easy to use, but occasionally falls short in horsepower and scalability. Compare the iWork suite with Microsoft Office, for example. Numbers is great, but really bogs down with large files. Run a 3,000-entry spreadsheet through both Excel and Numbers and you’ll see the response difference immediately.

Sometimes they deviate from that model, as in Filemaker (now a subsidiary), Xsan or the purchases that led to Shake, Logic, Color or Final Cut Server. They often acquire advanced technology in order to later integrate specific features or engineering into mainstream, consumer products. Apple seems to have a hot-cold attitude towards the enterprise world. They started directly courting broadcasters a few years ago and now they’ve generally backed off – leaving it to their reseller channels. This makes it very hard to predict whether we’ll see a new “high-end” FCP or a new “prosumer” FCP. The fact that iMovie for iPhone 4 was just announced certainly gives credence to the latter. As an extension of this, it’s easy to speculate that an iPad version of iMovie is also just around the corner.

As I see it, there are several possible scenarios. First, Apple may well be developing the next version (FCP8?). I’m guessing that they are, but I’m increasingly of the mind that it’s tied to the forthcoming Mac OS 10.7. The new OS will probably be a 2011 product – thanks to shifting priorities, like iPhone 4 and iOS4 – which means that a new Final Cut Pro may have to wait until next year, as well.

I don’t expect that to be “dumbed down”, but I do expect to see some features migrate up from iMovie. Just like Faces and Places made it into Aperture 3 from iPhoto. That didn’t detract from the “pro” features already in Aperture. Even so, I expect some very definite interface changes that may not be to everyone’s liking. It was done with DVD Studio Pro and iMovie, so Apple’s perfectly capable of repeating itself with FCP. If anything’s in jeopardy of a major feature change towards a more iMovie-style product, that would likely be Final Cut Express. Changing this application would better position it between iMovie and Final Cut Pro, instead of its current “FCP-lite” format.

The other two scenarios are that Apple does nothing or does, in fact, “dumb down” the product. I think these are unlikely, but if so, then what happens? Probably nothing. There are plenty of folks still cutting on older versions of both Final Cut Pro and Media Composer software. In these two scenarios, the majority of professional users would simply stay with FCP 6 or FCP 7 as long as they could. In either case, they’ll continue to get the same job done tomorrow as they do today.

Even if Adobe and Avid have surpassed Apple’s FCP at this point in time, it will take several years before loyal FCP cutters move on to something else. After all, Media 100 and Lightworks are still with us and continue to enjoy new development and a small, but loyal following. Remember that the creative community is still heavily committed to the Mac platform. Even if fortunes change and a bit of FCP’s market share shifts to Adobe or Avid, Apple still wins, because a good chunk of those software sales will be running on Apple hardware.

It’s the business model, stupid!

A good friend of mine pointed out that the editing application is no longer that important. It’s all about the business model. There’s a lot to that. If you work in a market that has completely shifted to Final Cut, then none of these changes is enough to shift your market significantly in another direction. Facilities have invested in gear (like AJA, Blackmagic Design, etc.) and freelancers know the software. It’s the ecosystem around FCP that changed it from an amateur DV editing software into a viable professional product. On the other hand, if you are working in news, then it’s more likely to be Avid than Final Cut. The main reason is the robustness of Avid’s news and shared storage solutions. Plus direct, professional support from the company, not a reseller.

In the case of Avid, Adobe and Apple, part of the business model is the suite of software that comes in the whole retail package. Avid Media Composer is typically considered as just the editing application, but in fact, the retail (boxed) version includes the Production Suite of 3rd party applications (Squeeze, BCC filters, Avid FX, Avid DVD and SmartSound). Although the emphasis is on Media Composer, this bundle offers you much of the same functionality as Apple Final Cut Studio or Adobe Production Premium CS5.

The other software is part of what people have built their businesses around. For example, design with Photoshop, build motion graphics with After Effects or Motion, color grade with Color and author with DVD Studio Pro, Encore or Avid DVD. All of these revenue streams factor into the decision of which way to go, aside from the simple choice of which editor to use. Swapping out the core platform is not a decision most owners take lightly in a challenged economy. I clearly pointed out this approach in my “FCP-centric facility” post. Since software is relatively cheap compared with the days of the $500K-$1M linear edit suite, most people own at least two of these three competing packages.


This has been a banner year for post-production innovation. All of the leading solutions do much more than simply “get the job done.” They offer powerful editing platforms as well as a complete multimedia ecosystem.

If you’re an Avid fan – or you used to edit on Avid and want an excuse to return – then Media Composer 5 is it for you. Performance gives the edge to Adobe, so if that’s a driver in your decision, I hear the Mercury Playback Engine calling you. Lastly, if you believe that the next FCP will truly be “awesome”, hang in there. It will come. On the other hand, if you are making money today with tools you already own, no one is pushing you to change. Believe it or not, you’ll still make money with those exact same tools tomorrow.

Here are some links to reviews and thoughts by others.

Avid Media Composer 5 reviews / tips

Shane Ross

Scott Simmons

Kevin McAuliffe

Dylan Reeve

Steve Cohen

Job ter Burg

Avid Media Composer 5 videos

Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 reviews / tips

Charlie White

Karl Soule

Bruce A. Johnson – Part 1, Part 2, Part 2.1

Dennis Radeke – Part 1, Part 2

Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 videos

©2010 Oliver Peters