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