FCP X alternatives

Final Cut Pro X has been out in the wild for over a month. Some of the hysteria has died down, but professional editors – those working in film, broadcast and at post facilities – have started to make some decisions regarding their next move. As a 1.0 application, FCP X doesn’t fulfill the needs required in many established workflows.

FCP X is a love-hate relationship. The people who are drawn to it feel that it’s the next revolution in editing technology. The folks ready to switch to something else point to the lack of advanced features, a radical redesign of the editing metaphor and the loss of compatibility with legacy projects. So, what do YOU do?

Click image for an enlarged view of the GUI.

Option 1: Adopt FCP X

I certainly don’t feel that Final Cut Pro X is either “junk” or “useless”. Clearly, if you like it and feel that it works for you, then the answer is to dive in, learn it and develop workflows that utilize it to your advantage. If you don’t like it, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be helpful for some jobs. Even if you don’t want to use it as your primary NLE – or if you just want to hang on and wait to see what improvements Apple has in store – it can be an asset in your current toolkit.

I see several areas where FCP X can augment other NLEs. For example, HDSLR-based projects shot on a Canon 1D/5D/7D. FCP X handles H.264 files extremely well, so use it as a “pre-edit” tool. Ingest the native H.264 camera files, align double-system sound (such as from a Zoom H4n) using built-in synchronization and color-correct/stabilize shots. Once you’ve done that, assemble a loose string of selects (with handles) and export a self-contained ProRes QuickTime file for further editing in the NLE of your choice.

Another type of project where FCP X would shine is one made up entirely of moves on high-res still photos. The built-in Ken Burns effect – coupled with the ability to access iPhoto or Aperture library files – makes FCP X the easiest tool for these projects. Unlike previous versions of Final Cut, start and end key frames are automatically adjusted when transitions are added. Do you shoot with RED and want to edit in 4K? FCP X is well-suited for 4K projects. Simply export 4K ProRes HQ or ProRes 4444 files from Redcine-X and do your cutting and grading on a 4K timeline in FCP X.

Option 2: Staying with FCP 7

Many ask, “Why the rush to abandon FCP 7?” After all, it’s working as well today as it did before the release of “X”, so simply continue editing in FCP 7, until FCP X issues are addressed by Apple. That’s true, but, of course, all development has now stopped on previous versions of Final Cut and related developer product sales have tanked. Apple abruptly pulled FCP 7 off the market, although they did subsequently allow resellers a limited extension to purchase additional licenses for their customers. The unknown is what happens to FCP 7 compatibility with future OS versions (beyond this release of Lion) and Mac hardware.

Many users have been waiting over four years for significant development in the Final Cut Studio suite (discounting the incremental advances in the 2009 version). Receiving an unwanted answer in the form of Final Cut Pro X, they’ve decided to switch solutions. I think that’s quite a reasonable attitude for most facility users, but the truth is that you can certainly “freeze” your current installation in its present state (hardware, software, OS) and be just fine. After all, there are plenty of users working with FCP 6 running on G5 PowerMacs.

The Shake experience is the closest analog we have. It, too, was EOL’ed by Apple, but has continued to work with newer OS versions and Mac hardware and is still a reliable compositor and effects tool for many. My guess is that the current Final Cut Studio suite has at least 1-3 more years of viability. In fact, some elements of the suite, like DVD Studio Pro, Color or Soundtrack Pro will continue to be user favorites, long after those same users have finally moved to FCP X or another choice as their main NLE.

Option 3: Adobe Creative Suite / Production Premium / Premiere Pro

Adobe’s Premiere Pro CS 5.5 is the NLE closest to what many FCP users would have wanted. A hypothetical 64-bit FCP 8 may have been a lot like Premiere Pro, so it’s natural that many disgruntled FCP users have found a new home with Adobe. The commands, workflows and working styles are familiar to Final Cut Pro editors.

If you own a third party capture card (AJA, Blackmagic Design, MOTO, Matrox), then having the right set of drivers means that the same hardware will work with Premiere Pro. Not to mention that basic FCP 7 projects can be imported into Premiere Pro CS 5.5 via XML.

Many FCP editors have realized they already own Premiere Pro if they bought one of Adobe’s bundles to acquire Photoshop or After Effects. Moving to Premiere Pro for many is as simple as clicking that square, purple “Pr” icon that’s been sitting in the Dock all along.

The move to Premiere Pro isn’t going to be flawless. Like any software, there will be quirks and differences. Yet, I can attest to the fact that there has been tangible improvement in Premiere Pro from CS4 to CS5 and to CS5.5. In this present version, Premiere Pro is a 64-bit, cross-platform application that handles more native codecs than FCP X and offers plenty of real-time performance via the Mercury Playback Engine technology. If you are RED user, Premiere Pro is the only NLE is this price range to allow native cutting with the REDCODE codec and frame sizes at up to RED Epic’s 5K format. Of course, integration with After Effects is a huge selling point, but buyers may also be attracted by Adobe’s aggressive cross-grade promotion for users coming from either Apple Final Cut Pro or Avid Media Composer.

Option 4: Avid Media Composer

Many older Final Cut editors started their nonlinear editing careers with Avid Media Composer. Some gravitated to FCP by version 3.0 and, therefore, perceptions of Media Composer are based on the application in 2002 or 2003. Some had less than flattering impressions of the company based on sales interaction during that time, as well.

Time marches on and those who have maintained a knowledge of the software and a relationship with Avid know that both the company and the Media Composer software are vastly different than those of eight or more years ago. Although not quite as cheap as Final Cut Studio or Final Cut Pro X, Media Composer is still extremely affordable in a software-only form. There’s a 30-day trial for tire-kickers, one of the most aggressive pricing policies for students and it’s now doubly attractive to FCP owners with a summertime cross-grade promotion.

Avid Media Composer offers many advanced tools simply not found within other NLEs. These include stereo 3D, AMA for native camera support, optional script/speech-based tools (ScriptScync and PhraseFind) and more. Ironically Avid added many features that are said to be more “FCP-like”, such as in-context timeline editing (Smart Tool) and AMA, which allows users to edit with existing files in place without first transcoding media files. Conversely, Apple adopted many Media Composer traits in its development of FCP X. Of course, earlier FCP projects can be imported into Media Composer using tools from Automatic Duck or Boris FX.

The Media Composer image I posted is of the prototype user interface presented at recent Avid user events, which showcased a technology preview of the next version. Although no specific feature nor even the design is locked in yet (and there is no announced release date), some of the bullet points include 64-bit operation and the ability to integrate an expanded range of third-party hardware.

Interestingly enough, this suggested UI drew some online comments that it copied FCP X. I would offer that those comments are generally uninformed. Enlarge the image and you’ll see most of the familiar Media Composer tools designed into a modern, darker, dockable and tabbed layout. If anything, this UI design resembles Premiere Pro more than FCP X and includes come interesting clues, like tabbed sequences and a mixer panel akin to Pro Tools.

Option 5: Other

I’ve concentrated on these four options, because they are in a similar price range, keep the user on the Mac and are all viable industry leaders. But there are other options, as well. The two Mac solutions I didn’t mention are Autodesk’s Smoke for Mac OS X and Media 100. I doubt most FCP switchers would move to Smoke, because that’s a completely different business model and price structure. However, those needing more advanced finishing tools designed to be integrated with FCP 7 and Media Composer workflows would be happy with Smoke. Media 100 is a step in a different direction. Still one of the easiest NLEs to use, Media 100 has continued to advance with moderate development under Boris FX. It’s a viable editor with good integration for After Effects, Boris Red and even native RED raw files.

Apple’s handling of the FCP X product launch has turned off some users so completely that they are also contemplating a move to Windows. Adobe’s and Avid’s tools are all cross-platform and Windows 7 Professional 64-bit is a very good OS. Other NLE choices are opened with such a move. These include Sony Vegas, EditShare Lightworks, Grass Valley EDIUS and Avid DS.

Whether or not you decide to switch or wait it out, it’s clear that Apple’s launch of Final Cut Pro X has shaken up the landscape. More options – more tools – and no clear market dominance – that’s what the next year seems to hold.

©2011 Oliver Peters

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