Final Cut Pro at 10 and Other Musings

Recently Final Cut Pro (formerly Final Cut Pro X) hit its tenth anniversary.  Since I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog lately due to the workload, I thought it was a good time to reflect. I recently cut a set of involved commercials using FCP. While I’ve cut literally thousands of commercials in my career, my work in recent years tends to be corporate/branding/image content in the five to ten minute range. I work in a team and the tool of choice is Premiere Pro. It’s simply a better fit for us, since the bulk of staff and freelancers are very fluid in Adobe products and less so with Apple’s pro software. Sharing projects and elements also works better in the Adobe ecosystem.

Cutting the spots in Final Cut Pro

In the case of the four :60s, I originally budgeted about two days each, plus a few days for client revisions – eleven days in total. My objective was to complete the creative cut, but none of the finishing, since these spots involved extensive visual effects. I was covering for the client’s regular editor who had a scheduled vacation and would finish the project. The spots were shot with a Sony Venice, simultaneously recording 6K RAW and 4K XAVC (AVC-Intra) “proxy” files. The four spots totaled over 1200 clips with approximately an hour of footage per spot. My cutting options could be to work natively with the Sony RAW media in Premiere Pro or DaVinci Resolve, or to edit with the proxies in any NLE.

The Sony RAW files are large and don’t perform well playing from a shared storage system. I didn’t want to waste the time copying location drives to the NAS, partially for reasons of time. I also wanted to be able to access media to cut the spots whether at home or at the work facility. So I opted to use the proxies, which allowed me to cut the spots in FCP. Of course, if you think of proxies as low-res files, you’d be wrong. These Sony XAVC files are high-res, camera-original files on par with 4K ProRes HQ media. If it weren’t for VFX, these would actually be the high-quality source files used for the final edit.

I copied the proxy files to a 2TB Samsung T7 SSD portable drive. This gave me the freedom to edit wherever – either on my iMac at home or one of the iMac Pros at work. This is where Final Cut Pro comes in. When you wade through that much footage, it’s easy for an NLE to get bogged down by caching footage or for the editor to get lost in the volume of clips. Thanks to skimming and keyword collections, I was able to cut these spots far more quickly than using any of the other NLE options. I could go from copying proxy files to my first cut on a commercial within a single day. That’s half of the budgeted time.

The one wrinkle was that I had to turn over a Premiere Pro project linked to the RAW media files. There are various ways to do that, but automatic relinking is dicier with these RAW files, because each clip is within its own subfolder, similar to RED. This complicates Premiere’s ability to easily relink files. So rather than go through XtoCC, I opted to import the Sony RAW clips into Resolve, then import the FCPXML, which in turn automatically relinked to the RAW files in Resolve.

There are a few quirks in this method that you have to suss out, but once everything was correct in Resolve, I exported an XML for Premiere. In Premiere Pro, I imported that XML, made sure that Premiere linked to the RAW files, corrected any size and speed issues, removed any duplicate clips, and then the project was ready for turnover. While one could look at these steps and question the decision to not cut in Premiere in the first place, I can assure you that cutting with Final Cut was considerably faster and these roundtrip steps were minor.

Remote workflows

Over the past year, remote workflows and a general “work from home” movement has shifted how the industry moves forward. So much of what I do requires connection to shared storage, so totally working from home is impractical. These spots were the exception for me, but the client and director lived across the country. In years past, they used to fly in and work in supervised sessions with me. However, in more recent years, that work has been unattended using various review-and-approval solutions for client feedback and revisions. Lately that’s through Frame.io. In the case of these spots, my workflow wasn’t any different than it would have been two years ago.

On the other hand, since I have worked with these clients in supervised sessions, as well as remote projects, it’s easy to see what’s been lost in this shift. Remote workflows present two huge drawbacks. The first is turnaround time. It’s inherently an inefficient process. You’ll cut a new version, upload it for review, and then wait – often for hours or even the next day. Then make the tweaks, rinse, and repeat. This impacts not only the delivery schedule, but also your own ability to book sessions and determine fair billing.

Secondly, ideation takes a back seat. When a client is in the room, you can quickly go through options, show a rearranged cut, alternate takes, and so on. Final Cut’s audition function is great for this, but it’s a wasted feature in these modern workflows. During on-prem sessions, you could quickly show a client the options, evaluate, and move on. With remote workflows, that’s harder to show and is subject to the same latency of replying, so as a result, you have fewer options that can be properly vetted in the cut.

The elephant in the room is security. I know there are tons of solutions for “drilling” into your system from home that are supposed to be secure. In reality, the only true security is to have your system disconnected from the internet (but also not totally bulletproof). As Sony Pictures, QNAP owners, Colonial Pipeline, agencies of the US government, or multiple other corporations have found out, if a bad actor wants to get into your system, they can. No amount of encryption, firewalls, VPNs, multi-factor authentication, or anything else is going to be guaranteed to stop them. While remote access might have been a necessary evil due to COVID lockdowns, it’s not something that should be encouraged going forward.

However, I know that I’m swimming against the stream on this. Many editors/designers/colorists don’t seem to ever want to return to an office. This is at odds with surveys indicating the majority of producers and agencies are chomping to get back to working one-on-one. Real estate and commuting costs are factors that affect such decisions, so I suspect hybrids will evolve and the situation in the future may vary geographically.

Final Cut Pro’s future

I mention the WFH dilemma, because remote collaboration is one of the features that Apple has been encouraged to build into Final Cut Pro by some users. It’s clearly a direction Adobe has moved towards and where Avid already has a track record.

I’m not sure that’s in Apple’s best interest. For one thing, I don’t personally believe Apple does a good job of this. Access and synchronization performance of iCloud is terrible compared with Google’s solutions. Would a professional collaboration solution really be industry-leading and robust? I highly doubt it.

Naturally Apple wants to make money, but they are also interested in empowering the creative individual – be that a professional or an enthusiast. Define those terms in whatever way you like, but the emphasis is on the individual. That direction seems to be at odds with what “pro” users think should be the case for Apple ProApps software, based on their experiences in the late years of FCP 1-7/FCP Studio (pre-X).

I certainly have my own feature request list for Final Cut Pro, but ultimately the lack of these did not stop me from a rapid turnaround on the spots I just discussed. Nor on other projects when I turn to FCP as the tool of choice. I use all four major NLEs and probably never will settle on a single “best” NLE for all cases.

The term “YouTube content creator” or “influencer” is often used as a pejorative, but for many filmmakers and marketeers outlets like YouTube, facebook, and Instagram have become the new “broadcast.” I recently interviewed Alexander Fedorov for FCP.co. He’s a Russian photographer/filmmaker/vlogger who epitomizes the type of content creator for whom Apple is designing its professional products. I feel that Apple can indeed service multiple types of users, from the individual, self-taught filmmaker to the established broadcast pro. How Apple does that moving forward within a tool like Final Cut Pro is anyone’s guess. All I know is that using the measurements of what is and isn’t “pro” no longer works in so many different arenas.

©2021 Oliver Peters