More FCP X thoughts

Thanks for the positive comments on my previous post. As a review of Final Cut Pro X, I wanted it to be even-handed. It was intended to let you know about the program without injecting too many of my own opinions. After all, FCP X does work for many potential users and my goal as a reviewer is to try to determine whether or not a product achieves the objectives its designers set for it. I wanted you to be able to have the basic facts and decide for yourself. This post is different, written from the niche I work in, advanced post-production.

From creative platform to iDevices

FCP X is hard to judge. It is viewed through the lens of twelve years of ever-increasing professional development that culminated with FCP 7 and the 2009 version of Final Cut Studio. In that time Apple, capitalized on the positive marketing vibe generated by the success of prominent users, like A-list editors working on high-visibility projects. In that time Apple also evolved from a niche computer company to the dominant mobile devices company. It seems pretty obvious that the new Apple view of the world is different from that of Final Cut’s biggest champions.

Apple has always been about the user experience. Hiding the technology under the hood and making things easier, more intuitive and more fun. The original acquisition of Final Cut Pro by Apple was intended to keep a QuickTime-based video editing tool on the Mac and to offer a powerful multimedia editor that served a variety of needs. With that purpose in mind, it was OK if certain advanced features and functions were missing. All it needed to be was an 80/20 application that could work with FireWire (then limited to DV) tape and camera sources and other QuickTime files.

Had the story ended there, Final Cut would have never been widely adopted into advanced film, video and broadcast environments. Final Cut up through version 7 evolved into a viable competitor to established NLE companies like Avid, thanks to the ecosystem of third-party hardware and software that had grown up around FCP. If it weren’t for original vendors like Pinnacle, Aurora, Digital Voodoo and others, FCP would have never been used for advanced post.

The attraction at first was price – one that was effectively subsidized by Apple’s hardware sales. FCP X presents a much truer reflective of cost. To equal the features of Final Cut Studio, you have to bundle FCP X, Motion 5, Compressor 4, Automatic Duck Pro Export and DaVinci Resolve for a total of about $1,900. Then you still don’t have advanced DVD/BD authoring or mixing. It’s likely that many of the missing features in FCP X will be augmented by free or paid updates or third-party solutions. If so, the bundle could run more in the range of $3,000 to replace what you now have in Studio for $1,000. Of course, most FCP X users will never need more than what can be done with FCP X at $300. This says to me, that Apple is focusing on the broader potential customer, so those that need the advanced features should be willing to pay for them. Therefore, the third-party developers also profit from the transition. A win-win from Apple’s point-of view.

Many point to the benefits of Apple’s push towards democratization in driving down the price of the NLE. They would argue that without FCP, there would be no improvements nor price reductions in Avid products specifically. To some extent I agree; however, I also feel that’s revisionist history. When FCP came on the scene, there were already other competitors pushing Avid to produce lower cost models. Media Composers of the day were full turnkey units (hardware, software, storage, monitoring) and if you configured a comparable FCP system with an I/O unit like Pinnacle CineWave, the cost really wasn’t that far apart. Yes, FCP was cheaper and pushed software-based models earlier, but Avid was in that game, too, albeit a bit late. One oft-ignored impact of FCP’s rise to dominance in many segments is that it killed off many of the other innovators, like Edit, ImMix, Lightworks (almost), Media 100 (almost) and others.

Time to reboot

Which brings us to the present. Final Cut Pro X is a reboot of sorts. Final Cut before “X” has grown into a very versatile platform that can be used in many enterprise environments. But, that’s really not what FCP was ever intended to be.  Apple doesn’t play well in the enterprise world. When you look at the on-again, off-again interaction with the enterprise user, through tools like Xserve and Final Cut Server, it’s clear that Apple is more interested in the broader base of end users. Apple is more than willing to eliminate under-performing software or replace one product with an updated, but often incompatible rewrite (AppleWorks, Shake, LiveType, Final Cut Express, Final Cut Server, all FCS apps, Dot Mac, MobileMe).

The sort of predictability and access to road maps that an enterprise client can get from Avid, Quantel, Microsoft or HP simply isn’t in Apple’s DNA. This makes it very risky for any customer or partner to put all of their eggs in Apple’s basket, except for a short-term advantage. You’re either on-board for the roller coaster ride or not.

In that context, Final Cut Pro X takes the application back to the essence of what was originally intended for Final Cut. A product that made it easier for both skilled and unskilled editors to achieve professional results with less complexity. It isn’t necessarily intended for the same advanced workflows where FCP has succeeded to date. There’s no need for Apple to do that any longer, since advanced post, albeit a niche, is quite nicely accommodated on the Mac platform by Avid, Adobe, Autodesk and even Media 100. There’s little concern anymore of not having any video editing tool available for the Mac.

It’s very tempting to true to boil this down to a “consumer vs. professional” argument, but I think that’s inaccurate. I’m coming around to the view that for Apple, the moniker of “Pro” isn’t defined by the target user, but rather by the performance capabilities of the software. Compare iPhoto with Aperture or GarageBand with Logic. In both categories, Apple offers two solutions: basic and advanced. The demarcation is in the tools offered and resources required by the application and not who uses it or how it’s used. Podcast producers often rely on GarageBand for recording, editing and mixing. Professional and amateur photographers alike use Aperture. It seems clear than Apple has set up the same pairing with iMovie and Final Cut Pro X. Even in the broadcast space, there’s the possibility of letting a reporter assemble a basic story with iMovie and then send the project to an editor using FCP X for polishing – or at least that’s the vision.

The missing features

Some argue that Apple will quickly add back in the missing features of FCP 7. I’m not so sure. Final Cut development went that route of its own accord over twelve years, but I believe the goals have changed. Apple has been coy about returning specific missing features, but they have promised to release “hooks” that will allow other developers to provide them. In fact, we are already seeing that in some of the free effects presets posted by users. FCP X effects are really Motion projects, so Apple has enabled users to leverage Motion 5 in the same way as was previously done with FxScript. There are already some early FCP X utilities on the market from developers like Assisted Editing and Automatic Duck.

Unfortunately by releasing FCP X in the way it was done, Apple has destroyed the existing ecosystem built around FCP and all developers start at square one again. Some are happy for the new opportunities and others express concern. By ignoring legacy support and releasing a product with many gaps, Apple has alienated many high-end professionals. You can argue all you want that these users constitute an insignificant niche, but for developers, it’s these users who will pay thousands of dollars for capture cards, accessories and plug-in packages.

The danger of re-inventing the wheel

I have nearly four decades of experience in broadcast operations, production and post, with most of it in editing. I’ve gone through numerous transitions and along the way operated, reviewed or been associated with well over two dozen different edit platforms. One of the things I’ve seen in that time is that non-standard workflows and interfaces eventually return to accepted concepts. After all, editing tools are built on over 100 years of post production practices.

For me, FCP X simply is NOT faster nor easier, just DIFFERENT – precisely because Apple has radically changed the way an editor organizes the information and works in the timeline. I will freely admit that my nonlinear days started with Avid and I first disliked moving to FCP. Now, after eight years of mostly non-stop experience with Final Cut Pro/Final Cut Studio, FCP 7 has grown to be my preferred editing tool – warts and all. It’s incredibly versatile, but that level of user control was dropped from FCP X.

I use the timeline as much as a scratch pad as the location for a final assembly. Place multiple clips onto top tracks and preview them as one option versus another. Or build little sub-sequences at the back of the timeline and then copy & paste these into the place I want. Work rough and then clean things up. FCP 7  and Media Composer give me that freedom and precision. FCP X does not. Of course, some of this is handled through Audition clips in FCP X, but that requires that you know and select the possible options first and then combine them into an Audition clip, which can be cut onto the timeline for previewing. To me, this requires more work than I go through in all other NLEs.

My ideal NLE would likely be a mash-up between Final Cut Pro 7 and Avid Media Composer, augmented by the performance features of FCP X and Premiere Pro. It’s difficult to predict the future where Apple is concerned, so I don’t want to discount the possibility of FCP X picking up steam with my customers. If that’s true, then I’ll be there ahead of them; however, today, FCP X is the wrong tool for my projects and those of my clients.

Take the Precision Editor, as an example. This highly-promoted feature is little more than a toy in my view. Trimming in FCP X is much weaker than in FCP 7 and that version wasn’t anywhere close to having the trimming control of Media Composer. Asymmetrical trimming in FCP X is virtually non-existent. The basics, like trimming L-cuts, haven’t been properly implemented. For instance, split edits (L-cuts, J-cuts) are only based on trimming audio track in-points in FCP X, instead of either audio or video as in most other NLEs.

It’s these and many other little things throughout FCP X that will hinder its adoption by the upper tier of users. That has a cascading effect. In a film school, why adopt FCP X for your students, when they’ll encounter Avid Media Composer as the tool of choice out in the “real world”? If you teach a digital media curriculum, whose graduates are destined to work in the corporate and web arena, then isn’t Adobe Create Suite better suited? What Apple has in effect done – by rebooting Final Cut as FCP X – is to pull the rug out from under its own advances earned over twelve years of FCP development. They’ve handed an extraordinary gift to competitors who can better service these smaller, but still important, market segments.

The post production niche

I’m currently cutting a feature film, shot on RED, using FCP 7 for the edit. I’m working with two assistants on a couple of systems plus a second editor. I’ll have multiple FCP 7 projects, scores of bins and probably over 100 sequences when I’m done. Plus it goes through a Pro Tools mix and grading in Color. No way would I ever consider using FCP X for this project. It simply does not work for me or most other film editors.

“Well,” you say, “that’s the exception.” I agree. But now contrast this with a simple story assembly for a corporate marketing video. That would seem ideal for FCP X. You get the cut done and it worked perfectly. The next day the client calls with changes and you realize that you have to reuse some of the elements and sequences from last year’s version, which was cut in FCP 6 or FCP 7. Oops!

In the work I do – ranging from spots to corporate to TV to films – I simply don’t see FCP X version 1.0 as functional for any of my real world workflows. I find that a shame, because there really is a lot there to like. Admittedly, my brain has learned to organize media in a certain way and to think of audio and video as tracks or channels. It’s not just training, but also the most logical way to work.

The analogy has been made to musical instruments. Experienced editors play their system like an instrument. You don’t have to think about how to do things, because your brain and muscle memory instinctively take care of running the system that you know so well.  The proponents of FCP X frequently have difficulty explaining why the new way is better. I understand the how and why, but I just don’t see it as better. I also don’t see it as inevitable that it will succeed, just because it is Apple. I realize “pro” has many different meanings to people, but in my world, “pro” means interacting with other apps, other facilities and other users. FCP X fails on those levels and I don’t see Apple changing that.

©2011 Oliver Peters