Minimalism versus Complexity in Post

The prevailing wisdom is that Apple might preview the next Mac Pro at its annual WWDC event coming in a couple of weeks. Then the real product would likely be available by the end of the year. It will be interesting to see what that brings, given that the current Mac Pro was released in 2013 with no refreshes in between. And older Mac Pro towers (mid-2009-2012) are still competitive (with upgrades) against the current run of Apple’s Mac product line.

Many professional users are hoping for a user-upgradeable/expandable machine, like the older towers. But that hasn’t been Apple’s design and engineering trend. MacBooks, MacBook Pros, iMacs, and iMac Pros are more sealed and non-upgradeable than their predecessors. The eGPU and eGPU Pro units manufactured by Blackmagic Design are, in fact, largely an Apple design with Apple engineering specifications intended to meet power, noise and heat parameters. As such, you can’t simply pop in a newer, faster GPU chip, as you can with GPU cards and the Sonnet eGPU devices.

What do we really need?

Setting emotions aside, the real question is whether such expandability is needed any longer. Over the years, I’ve designed, built, and worked in a number of linear edit suites, mixing rooms, and other environments that required a ton of outboard gear. The earliest nonlinear suites (even up until recently) were hardware-intensive. But is any of this needed any longer? My own home rig had been based on a mid-2009 Mac Pro tower. Over the years, I’ve increased RAM, swapped out three GPU cards, changed the stock hard drives for two SSDs and two 7200 RPM media drives (RAID-0), as well as added PCIe cards for eSATA/USB3 and Blackmagic Design monitor display. While at the time, each of those moves was justified, I do have to wonder whether that investment in money would have been better spent for computer model upgrades.

Today that same Mac Pro sits turned off next to my desk. While still current with most of the apps and the OS (not Mojave, though), it can’t accept Thunderbolt peripherals and a few apps, like Pixelmator Pro, won’t install, because they require Metal 2 (only available with newer hardware). So my home suite has shifted to a mid-2014 Mac Book Pro. In doing so, I have adopted the outboard modular solution over the cards-in-the-tower approach. This is largely possible today because small, compact computers – such as laptops – have become sufficiently powerful to deal with today’s video needs.

I like this solution because I can easily shift from location to home by simply plugging in one Thunderbolt cable linked to my OWC dock. The dock connects my audio interface, a few drives, and my primary 27″ Dell display. An additional plus is that I no longer have to sync my personal files and applications between my two machines (I prefer to avoid cloud services for personal documents). I bought a Rain Design laptop stand and a TwelveSouth BookArc, so that under normal use (with one display), the MBP tucks behind the Dell in clamshell mode sitting in the BookArc cradle. When I need a dual-display configuration, I simply bring out the Rain stand and open up the MBP next to the Dell.

Admittedly, this solution isn’t for everyone. If I never needed a mobile machine, I certainly wouldn’t buy a laptop. And if I needed heavy horsepower at home, such as for intensive After Effects work or grading 4K and 8K feature films, then I would probably go for a tower – maybe even one of the Puget Systems PCs that I reviewed. But most of what I do at home is standard editing with some grading, which nearly any machine can handle these days.

Frankly, if I were to start from scratch today, instead of the laptop, tower, and an iPad, I would be tempted to go with a fully-loaded 13″ MacBook Pro. For home, add the eGPU Pro, an LG 5K display, dock, audio i/o and speakers, and drives as needed. This makes for a lighter, yet capable editor in the field. When you get home, one Thunderbolt 3 cable from the eGPU Pro into the laptop would connect the whole system, including power to the MBP.

Of course, I like simple and sleek designs – Frank Lloyd Wright, Bauhaus, Dieter Rams, Scandinavian furniture, and so on. So the Jobs/Ive approach to industrial design does appeal to me. Fortunately, for the most part, my experience with Apple products has been a positive one. However, it’s often hard to make that work in a commercial post facility. After all, that’s where horsepower is needed. But does that necessarily mean lots of gear attached to our computers?

How does this apply to a post facility?

At the day job, I usually work in a suite with a 2013 Mac Pro. Since I do a lot of the Resolve work, along with editing, that Mac Pro cables up to two computer displays plus two grading displays (calibrated and client), a CalDigit dock, a Sonnet 10GigE adapter, a Promise RAID, a TimeMachine drive, the 1GigE house internet, and an audio interface. Needless to say, the intended simplicity of the Mac Pro design has resulted in a lot of spaghetti hanging off of the back. Clearly the wrong design for this type of installation.

Conversely, the same Mac Pro, in a mixing room might be a better fit – audio interface, video display, Thunderbolt RAID. Much less spaghetti. Our other edit stations are based around iMacs/iMac Pros with few additional peripherals. Since our clients do nearly all of their review-and-approval online, the need for a large, client-friendly suite has been eliminated. One room is all we need for that, along with giving the rest of the editors a good working environment.

Even the Mac Pro room could be simplified, if it weren’t for the need to run Resolve and Media Composer on occasion. For example, Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X both send real video to an externally connected desktop display. If you have a reasonably accurate display, like a high-end consumer LED or OLED flat panel, then all editing and even some grading and graphic design can be handled without an additional, professional video display and hardware interface. Any room configured this way can easily be augmented with a roving 17″-34″ calibrated display and a mini-monitor device (AJA or BMD) for those ad hoc needs, like more intense grading sessions.

An interesting approach has been discussed by British editor Thomas Grove Carter, who cuts at London’s Trim, a commercial editorial shop. Since they are primarily doing the creative edit and not the finishing work, the suites can be simplified. For the most part, they only need to work with proxy or lighter-weight ProRes files. Thus, there are no heavy media requirements, as might be required with camera RAW or DPX image sequences. As he has discussed in interviews and podcasts (generally related to his use of Final Cut Pro X), Trim has been able to design edit rooms with a light hardware footprint. Often Trim’s editors are called upon to start editing on-site and then move back to Trim to continue the edit. So mobility is essential, which means the editors are often cutting with laptops. Moving from location or home to an edit suite at Trim is as simple as hooking up the laptop to a few cables. A large display for interface or video, plus fast, portable SSDs with all of the project’s media.

An installation built with this philosophy in mind can be further simplified through the use of a shared storage solution. Unlike in the past, when shared storage systems were complex, hard to install, and confusing to manage – today’s systems are designed with average users in mind. If you are moderately tech savvy, you can get a 10GigE system up and running without the need for an IT staff.

At the day-job shop, we are running two systems – QNAP and LumaForge Jellyfish Rack. We use both for different reasons, but either system by itself is good for nearly any installation – especially Premiere Pro shops. If you are principally an FCPX shop, then Jellyfish will be the better option for you. A single ethernet cable to each workstation from a central server ‘closet’ is all that’s required for a massive amount of media storage available to every editor. No more shuffling hard drives, except to load location footage. Remember that shared storage allows for a distributed workflow. You can set up a simple Mac mini bay for assistant editors and general media management without the need to commandeer an edit suite for basic tasks.

You don’t have to look far to see that the assumptions of the past few decades in computer development and post-production facility design aren’t entirely valid any longer. Client interactions have changed and computer capabilities have improved. The need for all the extra add-ons and do-dads we thought we had to have is no longer essential. It’s no longer the driver for the way in which computers have to be built today.

©2019 Oliver Peters

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It is time to reconsider Final Cut Pro X?

While Final Cut Pro X may have ultimately landed in the market sector that Apple envisioned, the industry widely acknowledged that the original launch could have been better managed. Many staunch Final Cut Pro (“legacy”) users were irrevocably alienated. That’s a shame, because FCPX wasn’t a bad design when released – merely incomplete. In the eight years that have followed, the user base has grown to more than 2.5 million (April 2018) and the application sports the widest third-party support of any editing software.

I have certainly gone back and forth in my own use of FCPX, depending on whether it was the right tool for a given job. I cut a feature film with it back in the pre-10.1 days when it was a bifurcated application with separate Event and Project files. Since then, I have also used it on plenty of spots and corporate videos. Although my daily workflow is largely Premiere Pro-based now, I regularly use Final Cut Pro X when appropriate, as well as Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve and Avid Media Composer. Modern editors need to be NLE-multilingual.

I realize that winning Oscars and cutting large-scale productions isn’t what the majority of editors do. Nevertheless, these types of productions give any product street cred. You are probably aware of Focus and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, but there are certainly others that have used FCPX. Hollywood studios films are dominated by films cut with Avid Media Composer; however, short films cut using FCPX have won the short film Oscar category for two years in a row. While largely invisible to many US viewers, major international productions, on par with Game of Thrones, have been edited using Final Cut Pro X.

If you were one of those FCP7 users who jumped ship to another tool, then maybe it’s time to revisit Final Cut Pro X. There are many reasons I say that. In the past eight years, Apple has added wide codec support, LUTs, HDR capabilities, vastly improved color correction tools, and an easy method of working with captioning. Final Cut is clearly the better tool in many situations and here’s a quick overview why I feel that way.

What productions are best with FCPX?

Final Cut Pro X is capable of handling all types of editing, but it’s more ideal for some than others. The biggest differentiator is turnaround time. If you have to get done quickly – from ingest to delivery – then FCPX is hard to beat. It handles media better than any other NLE without the need for the beefiest hardware. Want to cut 4K ProResHQ on a two-year-old MacBook Pro? Then FCPX shines. That makes it a natural in broadcast news, promos, and sports. It’s also perfect for non-broadcast event coverage. Frankly, I’m surprised that US broadcasters haven’t gravitated to it like various other broadcasters around the world – especially for cutting news stories. The workflow, interface, and low hardware requirements make it well-suited to the task.

Station promo production might be questionable for some, but stop and think about the use of Motion Templates and how that technology can be applied to broadcast design. Final Cut features the unique ability to use templates that any user can create and publish as an effect out of Apple Motion. Therefore, custom effects, animation, and graphics can easily be created specifically for a station’s bespoke look.

For example, a broadcast group or network that owns multiple stations in different cities could have one creative team develop a custom station graphics package for each outlet, simply by using Motion. Those templates could be deployed to each promo department and installed into the individual FCPX edit systems. This would allow each editor to modify or customize time and event information based on the published parameters without mistakenly deviating from the prescribed graphic look. That’s a broadcast creative director’s dream.

A simple hardware footprint

Obviously Final Cut requires Apple computers, but there’s easy connectivity to media from external Thunderbolt, USB, and ethernet-based storage. Some facilities certainly need elaborate shared storage systems for collaborative workflows, but others don’t. If you are a creative editorial boutique, all of a given project’s proxy editing files can be stored on a single SSD drive, allowing the editor to easily move from room to room, or home to work, simply by carrying the SSD with them. They can even be cutting on a laptop and then bring that in to work, connect to an external display for better monitoring, and keep rocking. With the advent of external GPU systems (eGPU), you can easily augment the horsepower of middle-level Macs when the need arises. 

No external i/o hardware is required for monitoring. While I recommend a simple audio i/o interface and external speakers as a minimum, there are plenty of fixed-location systems where the editors only use headphones. AJA or Blackmagic interfaces to play video out to an external display are optional. Simply connect a high-quality display to the Mac via HDMI or Thunderbolt and FCPX will feed real video to it full screen. Premiere Pro can also do this, but Media Composer and Resolve do not.

Third-party ecosystem

Some of Final Cut’s deficits have developed into a huge asset. It enjoys one of the best ecosystems of third-party tools that enhance the application. These range from translation tools from vendors like Intelligent Assistance and Marquis Broadcast, to a myriad of plug-ins, such as those from FxFactory and Coremelt. Final Cut already comes with a very solid set of built-in effects filters – probably the most useful variety of the various NLE options. Even better, if you also purchase Motion, you can easily create more effects by building your own as Motion Templates. This has resulted in a ton of small developers who create and sell their own variations using this core technology.

You certainly don’t have to purchase any additional effects to be productive with FCPX, but if you do, then one of the better options is FxFactory by Noise Industries. FxFactory is both a set of effects and a delivery platform for other developers. You can use the FxFactory interface to purchase, install, and manage plug-ins and even applications from a diverse catalogue of tools. Pick and choose what you need and grow the repertoire as you see fit. One of the first options to start with is idustrial revolution’s newly revamped XEffects Toolkit. This includes numerous effects and title templates to augment your daily work. Some of these employ built-in tracking technology that allows you to pin items to objects within a shot.

Apple’s latest feature addition is workflow extensions. Adobe introduced this technology first in its products. But Apple has built upon it through macOS integration with apps like Photos and now in Final Cut Pro X. In short, an extension allows direct FCPX integration with another application. Various extensions can be downloaded from the Mac App Store and installed into FCPX. An extension then adds a panel into Final Cut, which allows you to interact with that application from inside the FCPX interface. Initially some of the companies offering extensions include frame.io, Shutterstock, Simon Says, and others.

Subscription

A sore point for many Adobe customers was the shift to the subscription business model. While the monthly rates are reasonable if you are an ongoing business, they have caused some to stick with software as old as CS6 (yikes!). As more companies adopt subscriptions, you have to start wondering when enough is enough. I don’t think we are there yet and Creative Cloud is still a solid value. But if you are an individual who doesn’t make a living with these tools, then it’s a concern. Adobe recently raised eyebrows with the doubling of the monthly cost for its Photography plan. As it turns out this is an additional pricing plan with more storage and not a replacement, but that’s only evident after the website page appears to have been quickly fixed. Predictably this gives competitors like ON1 an avenue for counter-marketing.

Concerned with subscriptions? Then the Apple professional applications are an alternative. Final Cut Pro X, Compressor, Motion, and Logic ProX – coupled with photo and graphics tools from Affinity and/or Pixelmator – provide a viable competing package to Adobe Creative Cloud. Heck, augment that with Fusion and/or DaVinci Resolve – even the free versions – and the collection becomes a formidable toolkit.

The interface

Naturally, the elephant in the room is the FCPX interface. It’s what simultaneously excited and turned off so many FCP7 users. In the end, how you edit with Final Cut Pro X does not have to be all that different than your editing style with other NLEs. Certainly there are differences, but once you get used to the basics, there’s more that’s similar than is different.

Isn’t imitation the highest form of flattery? You only have to look at Adobe Premiere Rush or the new Cut Page in Resolve 16 to realize that just maybe, others are starting to see the value in Apple’s approach. On top of that, there are features touted in Resolve 16, like facial (actually shape) recognition or adjustment layers, that were there even in FCPX 10.0. Whether this all is blatant copying or simply a tip-of-the-hat doesn’t matter. Each company has come to the conclusion that some workflows and some newer editors need a faster and more direct user interface that is easily scalable to small and large screens and to single and dual-display systems.

I realize that many out there will read this post and scream Apple apologist. Whatever. If you’ve shifted to PC, then very little of what I’ve said applies to you. I make my daily living with Apple hardware. While I recognize you can often get superior performance with a PC, I don’t find the need to make a change yet. This means that Final Cut Pro X remains a great option for my workflows. It’s a tool I can use for nearly any job and one that is often times better than most. If you rejected it eight years ago, maybe it’s time to take a second look.

©2019 Oliver Peters