The FCP X update

Apple launched into February with an eagerly awaited free update to Final Cut Pro X. Apple uses the Mac OS X numbering scheme, so the official update is 10.0.3, which would be equivalent to a version 1.3 release in other products. Don’t let the numbers fool you, though, as this is a huge release that adds major features, as well as some enhancements. The FCP X update was accompanied by corresponding free updates to Compressor 4 and Motion 5.

Multicam editing

The addition of multicam editing and broadcast monitoring fulfills an earlier promise to restore a number of features needed by professional users. The multicam editor is fully-featured and an improvement over FCP 7. You can cut with up to 64 camera angles of mixed formats and frame rates. Simply select the desired sources in the Event and combine these into a multicam clip. When you do this, a dialogue box opens to select a synchronization method. The options include timecode and markers, but also a sophisticated method to sync by audio waveforms, like that used by PluralEyes. You can open this multicam clip in its own timeline and make adjustments to the order of cameras, add effects and add more cameras.

Simply edit the multicam clip to your Project (edited sequence) and pick the angle to use for audio and video. To cut between camera angles, Apple has added a new Angle Viewer to display a matrix of camera angles ganged in sync with the Project timeline and viewer. The Angle Viewer can display up to 16 angles per bank. If you have more that 16 cameras, then switch the Angle Viewer between banks as needed. Angles are mapped by default to the number row on the keyboard, so cutting cameras is as easy as playing and switching “live” between angles by hitting the appropriate number key.

I tested this with two cameras and a 4-channel audio file with matching timecode. The audio file consisted of four iso mics – a separate track for each person in the group on camera. Cutting camera images was easy and fun, but not the audio. FCP X has a very convoluted method for working with multichannel audio from a single source, thanks to the trackless timeline. The usual menu options to “detach the audio” or “break apart items” appear to be disabled for multicam editing; therefore, it’s impossible to edit or mix the four individual mics within the Project timeline. This could be done by separately editing the audio to the timeline again as a connected clip or doing that work in the original multicam source clip. Multicam is nicely implemented for picture, but until the audio side is fixed, it’s unusable for some projects, like reality TV shows.

Broadcast monitoring

FCP X 10.0.3 adds the ability to properly monitor the audio/video signals through a range of PCIe cards and Thunderbolt units from vendors like AJA, Blackmagic Design and Matrox. It’s obvious why Apple considers this feature as still in beta development. I tested this with a Decklink HD Extreme 3D card and new, beta drivers from Blackmagic Design. The video quality was accurate, but the card tended to momentarily drop to black as I moved between sources and timeline playback within FCP X. In fact, it was hard to keep the signal up on the external monitor all the time when I wasn’t playing the timeline. However, when I did get it to stay, then it tracked the images during skimming without issue.

There are no controls to change viewing format as in FCP 7. You have to set the card’s default format using the System Preference pane to match the Project you are working on. This requires that you to quit FCP X and relaunch every time you make a change in settings. There is no pulldown insertion, so if you are working on a 23.98fps project, you will need a broadcast monitor that supports 24fps viewing. I found that the playback intermittently dropped frames, which was most obvious on pans and tilts. Colleagues testing AJA KONA cards reported similar issues.

Since the various card manufacturers are still in the process of releasing updated beta drivers, some of these issues may have been fixed or changed by the time you read this. It is clear, however, that this new broadcast monitoring capability is just that – for monitoring. Apple does not intend to add any VTR ingest or output-to-tape functionality (using the cards) back into FCP X as part of this feature.

Other marquee features

Motion 5 introduced a very powerful green/blue-screen keyer with both “one-step” and advanced controls. The simple version of that keyer was in FCP X. With this update, the full range of advanced controls has been exposed inside the FCP X interface and new features, like light wrap have been added. This gives FCP X one of the nicest keyers in any NLE and certainly on par with Avid’s Spectramatte or Adobe’s Ultra. Whether are not you think it’s comparable to Keylight or some keyer is a matter of taste and difficulty of your shot, since not all keyers will yield equal results.

The best new feature for me is Relink, which enables viable offline-to-online workflows within FCP X. Simply highlight the clips in a Project and relink the media in these clips. FCP X will also import those new clips into an Event. For example, in a ALEXA or RED project, you may opt to cut with low-resolution dailies generated by the lab or the DIT on set. When the cut is locked, create a new Event, duplicate the Project and associate it with that new Event. Now relink to the original high-resolution, camera files (or ProRes conversions in the case of RED) and your Project will show up with the corresponding clips ready for color grading and finishing.

A number of other changes have been made throughout, including a change to the way Photoshop files are imported. In the first version, files were imported and flattened. Now layered Photoshop files are imported as a Compound clip with the layers in tact, allowing you to adjust the elements within the FCP X timeline. Any Photoshop layer effects, like drop shadows or embossing, have to be merged and text or shapes rasterized first in Photoshop to show up correctly in FCP X. Some users have noted issues with Photoshop files. These include the inability to save modifications and have links maintains. Also layer scale and position value may or may not be correctly represented in FCP X, so assume that you will need to reposition layers once inside FCP X. (Click here for Apple’s “best practices” paper.)

Expanding the ecosystem

The depth of vendors surrounding Final Cut Pro X has been quickly rebuilding, adding effects and filters, but also filling in workflow gaps. The biggest news with this update is the release by Intelligent Assistance of the 7toX application (available at the Mac App Store), which I mentioned in the post on FCP X roundtrips. You can finally migrate Final Cut Pro 7 projects and/or sequences into Final Cut Pro X. Check their site for the list of what works and doesn’t, but in its first iteration, a rich amount of data is brought over from FCP 7 to FCP X. The big caveat is that you must have media connected to the FCP 7 project when you export that XML, in order for the translation and linking to work properly.

FCP X 10.0.3 changed the XML format slightly, so if you’ve been using DaVinci Resolve for grading roundtrips, make sure you update Resolve, as well. Other new workflow applications that are compatible with FCP X include Boris Soundbite and Singular Software’s PluralEyes. Soundbite uses speech analysis as a search tool to locate words or phrases by phonetic matches and the results can be imported into FCP X. Although FCP X offers audio synchronization and multicam, another option is PluralEyes. It may be used as an alternate method to synchronize multiple cameras and/or sync camera audio audio tracks in double-system productions.

Filters galore

Most of the effects/plug-in vendors have been getting up to speed with new tools for FCP X. These now include popular packages from Noise Industries (FxFactory), MotionVFX, CHV, Crumplepop and CoreMelt. Recent additions to the party have included Pomfort, Digieffects, Digital Heaven and Nattress. The biggest plug-in news is the compatibility with Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Looks 2 and GenArts’ Sapphire Edge. Changes in this update (and corresponding updated versions for Looks 2 and Edge) make it possible to use them with FCP X. If you are familiar with Magic Bullet Looks 2 and Sapphire Edge from other host applications, then the functionality will be the same.

One thing to bear in mind, is that filters inside FCP X are Motion 5 templates. Individual users can easily create their own custom filters in Motion 5 and then “publish” those to FCP X, where they show up as an effect, transition or generator. A number of enterprising editors have developed their own and offer them for free on the web. Several prolific developers include Simon Ubsdell, Alex Gollner and Brendan Gibbons.

This growth offers new visual styles and techniques, but heavy-duty filters impact performance. The built-in FCP X filters seem very efficient and some of the lighter-weight plug-ins, like those from Digital Heaven or Nattress play smoothly without rendering. Others, like Magic Bullet Looks 2 or Sapphire Edge require a bit more horsepower and ultimately have to be rendered for smooth playback. In spite of other improvements in this FCP X update, overall rendering performance for the application seems slow to me, even with 64-bit and OpenCL optimization. In fact, when I ran direct render tests comparing FCP X, FCP 7, Premiere Pro and Media Composer with the same MB Looks preset, as well as comparable built-in filters (presumably optimized for each NLE), FCP X was consistently the slowest to render.

Over the next few weeks, I will post a series of articles taking a deeper look into some of the third-party software options available to users to enhance their FCP X effects capabilities and workflows.

FCP X 10.0.3 isn’t going to change many minds in the ongoing heated discussions that surround this product. I believe 10.0.3 represents the version that Apple had originally intended to release last year, but some features simply weren’t stable or ready at that time. Multicam may sway a few that have been on the edge, but those who were hoping that updates would make FCP X more like the “legacy” versions of Final Cut aren’t going to be happy. It’s pretty clear that FCP X, with its new approach to editing, is Apple’s intended direction. For some, this is a freeing experience. Those users make up the segment that will test the waters professionally with FCP X and continue to be excited in how it evolves.

Written for DV magazine (NewBay Media, LLC). Updated for this blog entry.

©2012 Oliver Peters