The post FCP world

Just as the computer manufacturers discuss the post-PC world, I believe the film and video industry has entered the post-FCP world. For over a decade Apple has steadily gained NLE market share and set the standard with its Studio software configuration. In addition to the popularity of Final Cut Pro, DVD Studio Pro owned the DVD space for Mac-based authoring shops. The integration of Color launched new opportunities for entrepreneurial colorists. In spite of these gains, Apple tossed it all out and in June the industry changed.

The professional community of full-time film and TV editors and post facilities wanted a new software suite that expanded and enhanced the strengths of FCP 7 and the accompanying Studio bundle – not a completely new application that was Final Cut in name only. Regardless of whether you love or hate Final Cut Pro X, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it simply doesn’t fit into any established workflows. If you’ve structured your business around the Final Cut Studio ecosystem, then FCP X is a square peg in a round hole.

We all know that Apple is quick to abandon legacy technologies, but no one was prepared for a change quite this radical. Apple simply does not compete on features, yet that’s where a hypothetical FCP 8 would have headed. Had Apple actually done that, it no doubt would have kicked serious butt against Avid and Adobe, so the launch of FCP X is all the more puzzling to folks who rely on the “classic” version of FCP. In the name of innovation, Apple decided on a reboot as the way forward. One that included a completely different editing paradigm, which not only changed the way they decided editors should work, but also made it nearly impossible to integrate FCP X with anything else in the rest of the post world.

The Final Cut Pro X update

A few days ago, Apple released its first update to FCP X. In making the PR rounds Apple is trying to stress that they are listening to pro users and this update reinforces that. I’m not so sure. I do think Apple is listening to its pro customers and values them. I just don’t believe they are willing to make many (if any) concessions to users who disagree with the design direction Apple has taken. The FCP X launch was completely botched by an instant removal of FCP, FC Studio, FC Server and FCE from the market. New seats of FCP/Studio “classic” were made available again for a limited time – and FCP X can now be tested with a 30-day free trial – so, both are tacit attempts by Apple to rectify mistakes that the pro community vocalized loud and clear.

I don’t believe, though, that this update is a direct response to user demand. The new features include XML interchange, a public SDK for native camera plug-ins and the expansion of Roles into metadata-driven exports, such as for audio stems. These all seem to be the addition of elements that were unfinished at launch and were likely yanked out at the time. FCP X’s XML is an entirely new version and this feature is simply a hook for third party developers. Because FCP 7 is based on a track model and FCP X is based on a parent-child model, the two forms of XML have no commonality. Many users quickly tested XML interchange between FCP 7 and FCP X and were disappointed, because they don’t understand that Apple isn’t going to add this functionality. That’s there for developers like Assisted Editing, who is working on an FCP X to FCP 7 XML converter for timelines, i.e. Projects to Sequences.

The camera plug-in SDK will leave it up to the camera manufacturers to bring native files into FCP X. This is much the same as FCP 7 Log and Transfer or Avid AMA. Yet, it is my understanding that this doesn’t actually mean complete native support, but rather support if the codec is wrapped in a QuickTime wrapper. So, in the case of RED’s .r3d format, will an FCP X editor actually have access to the camera raw adjustments, like they do in Adobe or Avid applications?

Apple has announced that the next update (available in early 2012) will include multi-cam support and broadcast I/O. I’m sorry if I sound jaded, but I have to believe that these features have always been planned from the beginning. Multi-cam probably required further development and broadcast I/O most likely needed OS elements to be developed for AV Foundations (the under-the-hood media architecture of FCP X). Once developed, then AJA, Blackmagic Design and others can write the appropriate drivers for their hardware. After all, why would Apple design those really nice software scopes in FCP X, if the only visual output was via desktop video?

The last little tidbit to note in this update is that Apple has been touting the XML interchange with DaVinci Resolve and CatDV. I don’t know about others, but this seems rather ironic to me. That’s great as a solution going forward, but does little to appease owners who had their investment in Color or FC Server instantly wiped out. Paraphrasing a friend, “Isn’t that spitting on the grave?!”

Is it a game-change away from Apple?

The bottom line is that Apple clearly feels they are changing the game. Maybe so. All I know is that it has completely splintered the market in a way that the competition never could. However, it has also had a type of “negative halo” effect. Not only are users looking at the options beyond FCP – many are looking at options away from Apple hardware and software entirely. This didn’t just happen because of FCP X. It started with the poor support of Xsan, as well as the string of EOL decisions for Shake, Xserve RAID, Xserve and Final Cut Server. Some of these after only a few short years under the Apple banner. Rightfully so, it has many corporate buyers a bit skittish about long term Apple reliability as an enterprise supplier.

I understand such corporate reasoning, but I think the sort of decisions Apple has been making reflect the computing industry as a whole. There’s probably at last one more solid refresh coming for the Mac Pro towers, though odds are it will have fewer slots in favor of Thunderbolt. After that, who knows? Only iMacs and Mac Minis? Maybe so, but that’s likely to be a few years down the road, yet. If you look over the fence at Windows machines, you’ve got HP seeking to dump that operation, as well. Where will the power users turn for a workstation if both suppliers aren’t making them any longer? Dell, Boxx, 1Beyond or Lenovo? Will the industry return to the SGI model, where a high-end, specialized machine is the way to work with video at the facility level? These are all unknowns that probably won’t affect larger users for a number of years.

Testing the waters

The change caused by FCP X is parallel to other industry changes, which all add up to a big year or two of stirring the pot. Editors and facility owners are actively planning a move away from Final Cut. For many this is Adobe, since quite a few already own Premiere Pro as part of one of the bundles. For others, it’s a return to an old friend, Avid Media Composer. Both are on fast development paths these days, with Adobe on 64-bit before Apple and Avid getting there shortly.

Along with these NLE changes, the color correction landscape has also been radically altered. Apple could have owned the low cost color correction suite business, but they’ve been trumped by Blackmagic Design. DaVinci Resolve or Resolve Lite have became great alternatives if you want to move away from Color. I still love the way Color works, but you’d be nuts to build a new room or service based on it now. No slouch in color science, Adobe opted to purchase Iridas and appears to be ready to integrate a form of the highly-regarded SpeedGrade application into Creative Suite 6. Once this is done, Adobe will have completely overshadowed FCP X and replaced all of Final Cut Studio’s functions with components of Creative Suite.

The exit strategy

It seems like prudent editors and facility owners should be developing an exit strategy from FCP 7 and Final Cut Studio. Sure, these tools will continue to work, but support is gone and sooner or later various portions of the software will inevitably “break”. If you were on the fence about FCP X – waiting to see the direction that the next couple of updates would take the application – then I think Apple has now made that direction quite clear. If that’s not for you, then the next year should be a time of transition.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Pick the new NLE or Suite you want to use, learn it and start using it on projects.

2. Re-evaluate and revise your workflows. For instance, if you were a heavy plug-in user and did your finishing in FCP, but are now moving to Adobe, you may opt to use  After Effects instead, for all the finishing work. That will now become the primary host for your plug-ins.

3. You are going to continue to use Final Cut Studio for a while in tandem with the new solution, but start stripping done the elements you use. Streamline the selection of plug-ins, for example, and reduce FCP’s footprint on your system.

4. Any masters you create today for projects should be saved not only as finished files, but also as split-track, textless versions – probably as QuickTime files. This will make it easier to edit future revisions to legacy projects in your new solution, without the need to completely translate or rebuild old projects.

5. Preserve any edit lists and data in easily-opened formats, such as EDLs, XMLs, batch lists, spreadsheets, FileMaker Pro databases, etc.

6. Consolidate all of your ongoing projects to single folders, drives or other data locations. Avoid having contents spread all over the place. Automatic Duck Media Copy is one of the best tools for doing this with Media Composer or FCP 7.

© 2011 Oliver Peters

FCP X Road Blocks Webinar

A few weeks ago I posted an entry covering my thoughts about some of the key issues that would cause a professional editor or facility to reject Apple’s new Final Cut Pro X. I don’t think of it as “iMovie Pro” or “a consumer application”. I just don’t feel it fits the professional’s needs at this point in time. I will expound upon this in a live webinar October 6th. This is part of the Filmmaking Webinars series. Click here for registration information. See you there!

 

UPDATE: The on-demand version and bonus materials are now available for purchase at the Filmmaking Webinars site.

Alternate workflows

Most editors tend to finish their projects completely within a given NLE application. They may use software like Boris Red or Apple Motion for segments, but in the end, all the final assembly, color correction and finishing is done inside Final Cut Pro, Media Composer or another NLE. Some, however, utilize alternate workflows and one of these is to employ Adobe After Effects as the finishing tool. This is a route advocated by Stu Maschwitz in his DV Rebel philosophy, but it makes a lot of sense for many projects.

Why?

The first and biggest reason to use After Effects is because it’s often the best tool for the job. Although you can get into After Effects from most leading NLEs, one popular approach is to do a basic rough cut edit using Final Cut Pro “classic” and then send everything to After Effects for finishing. This approach mimics traditional offline-online editing workflows, but instead of using an expensive online edit system or software, you would use After Effects. Final Cut is a really good offline editing tool for making creative editorial decisions, but it can be a challenge to use when finesse and top quality effects are essential. In addition, the more you load it up with effects filters and plug-ins, the more sluggish it tends to be – often becoming unstable.

Adobe After Effects is ideal for compositing. It includes a great set of built-in and bundled filters, effects and plug-ins and the architecture is well-suited for a wide range of third-party effects. The application uses a nice performance/quality throttle, that gracefully degrades the images for fast scrubbing, but then locks in best quality when the image is parked. It does this very responsively. Plus there are batch rendering features when working with multiple timelines.

If you like to buy plug-ins, then standardizing on After Effects as your advanced tool of choice, means you only need to deal with buying, installing and updating plug-ins for one host, rather than many. There are plenty of good plug-in options for After Effects, but my preferred choices are Boris Continuum Complete, GenArts Sapphire and Monsters GT, followed by the various Magic Bullet filters (Looks, Colorista II, Mojo), Noise Industries FxFactory and CoreMelt solutions.

How?

You can use any application you like for editing, but I’m going to discuss Final Cut Pro 7’s use with After Effects. With the release of FCP X, it’s pretty obvious that FCP “classic” is still a far better editor for many creative editing jobs, especially when a ton of footage is involved. I feel the offline-editing phase is better served by the FCP 7 than the FCP X toolset. Not to mention, right now it’s tough to get from FCP X into After Effects.

You can use Automatic Duck’s Pro Export FCP 5.0, which will generate AAF files readable by Premiere Pro, but in my experience, the Adobe applications write a small amount of metadata into the media files, which will subsequently cause the files to appear offline in FCP X. I believe this can be fixed by turning off the XMP function in the Premiere Pro preferences, but I really haven’t spent much time testing it. Right now, I suggest limiting Pro Export 5.0 to getting FCP X audio to Pro Tools – its intended use. Lets stick with FCP 7, mainly because I doubt that most facilities are going to ditch FCP 7 for FCP X any time soon.

There are several ways to get from FCP 7 into the Adobe world. The first step is to export an XML file of your edited FCP 7 sequence. From there you have a variety of options. The most popular to date has been Automatic Duck’s Pro Import AE 5.0. Since this is an After Effects import plug-in, you can import not only FCP XML files, but also Apple Motion projects and Avid Media Composer AAF files. Another option is Boris Transfer AE from Boris FX, which will import FCP XML and Avid AAF files into After Effects.

Although the point of this exercise is to limit the amount of effects work you do inside the editing software, Boris Transfer AE offers the added bonus of translating the effects parameters of most of the BCC filters when they are installed into both the editing host and After Effects. If you used BCC filters in FCP, then most will be correctly translated within the AE composition. Both Automatic Duck and Boris solutions provides slightly different functions and each may be better with certain media types than the other. For instance, Automatic Duck provides a like translation for native RED files, when FCP Log and Transfer was used.

The Boris and Automatic Duck filters provide a direct path into After Effects, but involve an additional investment. If you have the Adobe Production Premium or Master Collection bundles, then you also own Premiere Pro. Adobe has been enhancing timeline import features in successive versions of the Creative Suite, so if you have Premiere Pro CS 5.0 or CS 5.5, then you can import FCP XML and Avid AAF files. I’ve had the most success with XML, since on a Mac, both Final Cut and the Adobe apps will link to the same QuickTime media. In the case of Avid files, Adobe doesn’t read the Avid MXF media, so this import has been hit-or-miss, depending on media format or whether I used AMA versus traditional Avid ingest methods.

The Adobe workflow

Continuing with FCP 7, you would start by exporting an XML file, which is then imported into Premiere Pro. This generally works best if you have first stripped out all effects and filters from the FCP sequence before the export. In Premiere Pro, you can get into After Effects by sending your complete Premiere Pro timeline to After Effects via Adobe Dynamic Link or you can copy all of your video tracks and clips and paste those into a new After Effects composition. Dynamic Link creates a “nested” clip for the After Effects composition on the Premiere Pro timeline. Any changes made in After Effects are updated in Premiere Pro. Rendering uses the After Effects engine and you don’t need to have the same After Effects filters installed into Premiere Pro.

Of course, the obvious question is, “Why not simply edit in Premiere Pro to begin with?” True – that makes a lot of sense – but people are comfortable with what they know. Premiere Pro has been getting steadily better and certainly turning heads since the FCP X launch. CS 5.0 and CS 5.5 have definitely been making points as viable alternatives, but for now, many editors are still going to be more comfortable with FCP 7 and will seek to maximize its usefulness for as long as possible.

If you copy-and-paste from Premiere Pro into After Effects, instead of using Dynamic Link, then the two applications and sequences are independent of each other. You might choose to use Dynamic Link if you intend to do more editing in Premiere Pro – or stick to the copy-and-paste method, if Premiere Pro is simply serving as a conduit between Final Cut and After Effects. As a side note, the CS 5.5 bundles include Audition, Adobe’s powerful audio editing/mixing application. You can also use Premiere Pro to send your audio tracks to Audition for audio finishing.

Once inside After Effects, then you are in familiar territory if you are a frequent user. I find After Effects to be pretty logical and easy to learn once you know a few of the basics. Naturally, there’s a wealth of training materials for it. The downside of After Effects is its track structure. All video clips appear in cascading, ascending or descending tracks with only one clip per track. A :60 commercial with 50 shots in the edit will appear as 50 ascending tracks in an After Effects composition.

The track structure isn’t really a problem once you get used to navigating it, but I would find this workflow a challenge for a fast-paced, long-form project. Yet, I know people who do this and are quite comfortable with it. In that situation, you’d probably want to break your edit sequence up into several segments.

Media is accessible outside of the boundaries for the clip on the track, so you can still split, trim, slip or slide clips if needed. Although this is possible, I recommend not doing this. Treat After Effects strictly as a finishing tool – NOT an editorial tool. Make sure the picture cut is “locked”, the same as any other similar situation – offline to online video projects or film rough cuts to DI.

Once the After Effects work is done, render your composition and then combine it with the mixed audio in any tool that’s right for the workflow. Typically this would mean rendering a flattened QuickTime movie from After Effects – plus a stereo AIFF audio track from Audition – and then combining these back into a final mixed, master sequence using Premiere Pro, Final Cut or Media Composer.

Advantages

Aside from the wealth of plug-ins available via After Effects, using this method has some other benefits. The first is that if your project is very effects-intensive, requiring visual effects, fancy animation or creative text treatments, After Effects quite simply blows away any NLE, excluding Avid DS or Autodesk Smoke. For instance, the keying tools alone surpass anything inside FCP or Media Composer. Second, there are plenty of talented motion graphics designers who excel at After Effects. This makes it an easy hand-off from editor to designer, if you intend to split roles and let each person contribute at their best skill level. I’ve done this a lot where a commercial was graphics-heavy. I first edit a “base layer” of images for the commercial and then pass it over to a designer/compositor/animator who is an After Effects whizz for the finishing touches.

After Effects is resolution independent. In the case of 4K RED projects, you could offline edit at HD sizes in FCP or Media Composer and then use After Effects to conform and grade a 4K master. Finally, After Effects is a great place to stylize the look of a project, whether that’s just standard color grading or something more exotic. Again – plenty of integrated tools and a wealth of third-party options. Add to this masking, composite modes and more.

You get the picture. After Effects provides the desktop video pro with many of the same types of tools found on more expensive DI and VFX systems, like Flame. It may take a bit more patience and fiddling, but it provides users with an affordable and powerful toolset that’s hard to beat.

©2011 Oliver Peters