Final Cut Pro vs DaVinci Resolve

Apple’s innovative Final Cut Pro editing software has passed its tenth year and for many, the development pace has become far too slow. As a yardstick, users point to the intensity with which Blackmagic Design has advanced its flagship DaVinci Resolve application. Since acquiring DaVinci, Blackmagic has expanded the editing capabilities and melded in other acquisitions, such as EyeOn Fusion and Fairlight audio. They’ve even integrated a second, FCP-like editing model called the Cut page. This has some long-time Final Cut editors threatening to jump ship and switch to Resolve.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into some of the comparisons. While Resolve has a strong presence as a premier color correction tool, its actual adoption as the main editor within the post facility world hasn’t been very strong. On the other hand, if you look outside of the US to Europe and the rest of the world, you’ll find quite a few installations of Final Cut Pro within larger media operations and production companies. Clearly both products have found a home servicing professional workflows.

Editing versus finishing

When all production and post was done with film, the picture editor would make all of the creative editing decisions by cutting workprint and sound using a flatbed or upright editing machine. The edited workprint became the template for the optical house, negative cutter, film timer, and lab to produce the final film prints. There was a clear delineation between creative editing and the finishing stages of filmmaking.

Once post moved to videotape, the film workflow was translated into its offline (creative editing) and online (finishing) video counterparts. Offline editing rooms used low-res formats and were less expensive to equip and operate. Online rooms used high-res formats and often looked like the bridge of a starship. But it could also be the other way around, because the offline and online processes were defined by the outcome and not the technology. Offline = creative decisions. Online = finished masters. Of course, given proper preparation or a big budget, the offline edit stage could be skipped. Everything – creative edit and finishing – was all performed in the same online edit bay.

Early nonlinear editing supplemented videotape offline edit bays for a hybrid workflow. As computer technology advanced and NLE quality and capabilities improved, all post production shifted to workstation-based operations. But the offline/online – editing/finishing – workflows have persisted, in spite of the fact that most computers and editing applications are capable of meeting both needs. Why? It comes down to three things: personality, kit, and skillset.

Kit first. Although your software might do everything well, you may or may not have a capable computer, which is why proxy workflows exist today. Beyond that comes monitoring. Accurate color correction and sound mixing requires proper high-quality audio and video monitoring. A properly equipped finishing room should also have the right lighting environment and/or wall treatments for sound mixing. None of this is essential for basic editing tasks, even at the highest level. While having a tool like Resolve makes it possible to cover all of the technical aspects of editing and finishing, if you don’t have the proper room, high-quality finishing may still be a challenge.

Each of the finishing tasks requires its own specialized skillset. A topnotch re-recording mixer isn’t going to be a great colorist or an award-winning visual effects compositor. It’s not that they couldn’t, but for most of us, that’s not the way the mind works nor the opportunities presented to us. As we spend more time at a specialized skill – the “10,000 hour” rule – the better we are at it.

Finally, the issue of personality. Many creative editors don’t have a strong technical background and some aren’t all that precise in how they handle the software. As someone who works on both sides, I’ve encountered some of the most awful timelines on projects where I’ve handled the finishing tasks. The cut was great and very creative, but the timeline was a mess.

On the flipside, finishing editors (or online editors before them) tend to be very detail-oriented. They are often very creative in their own right, but they do tend to fit the “left-brained” description. Many prefer finishing tasks over the messy world of clients, directors, and so on. In short, a topnotch creative editor might not be a good finisher and vice versa.

The all-in-one application versus the product ecosystem

Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve is an all-in-one solution, combining editing, color, visual effects, and sound mixing. As such, it follows in the footsteps of other all-in-ones, like Avid|DS (discontinued) and Autodesk Flame (integrated with Smoke and Lustre). Historically, neither of these or any other all-in-ones have been very successful in the wider editing market. Cost coupled with complex user interfaces have kept them in more rarified areas of post.

Apple took the opposite approach with the interaction of Final Cut Pro X. They opted for a simpler, more approachable interface without many features editors had grown used to in the previous FCP 7/FCP Studio versions. This stripped-down application was augmented by other Apple and third-party applications, extensions, and plug-ins to fill the void.

If you want the closest equivalent to Resolve’s toolkit in the Final Cut ecosystem, you’ll have to add Motion, Logic Pro, Xsend Motion, X2Pro Audio Convert, XtoCC, and SendToX at a very minimum. If you want to get close to the breadth of Adobe Creative Cloud offerings, also add Compressor, Pixelmator Pro (or Affinity, Photo, Publisher, and Designer), and a photo application. Resolve is built upon a world-class color correction engine, but Final Cut Pro does include high-quality grading tools, too. Want more? Then add Color Finale 2, Coremelt Chromatic, FilmConvert Nitrate, or one of several other color correction plug-ins.

Yes, the building block approach does seem messy, but it allows a user to tailor the software toolkit according to their own particular use case. The all-in-one approach might appear better, but that gets to personality and skillset. It’s highly unlikely that the vast majority of Resolve users will fully master its four core capabilities: edit, color, VFX (Fusion), and mixing (Fairlight). A good, full-time editor probably isn’t going to be as good at color correction as a full-time colorist. A great colorist won’t also be a good mixer.

In theory, if you have a team of specialists who have all centralized around Resolve, then the same tool and project files could bounce from edit to VFX, to color, and to the mix, without any need to roundtrip between disparate applications. In reality it’s likely that your go-to mograph/VFX artist/compositor is going to prefer After Effects or maybe Nuke. Your favorite audio post shop probably won’t abandon Pro Tools for Fairlight.

Even for the single editor who does it all, Resolve presents some issues with its predefined left-to-right, tabbed workflow. For example, grading performed in the Color tab can’t be tweaked in the Edit tab. The UI is based on modal tabs instead of fly-out panels within a single workspace.

If you boil it all down, Resolve is the very definition of a finishing application and appeals best to editors of that mindset and with the skills to effectively use the majority of its power. Final Cut Pro is geared to the creative approach with its innovative feature set, like metadata-based organization, skimming, and the magnetic timeline. It’s more approachable for less-experience editors, hiding the available technical complexity deeper down. However, just like offline and online editing suites, you can flip it around and do creative editing with Resolve and finishing with Final Cut Pro (plus the rest of the ecosystem).

The intangibles of editing

It’s easy to compare applications on paper and say that one product appears better and more feature-rich than another. That doesn’t account for how an application feels when you use it, which is something Apple has spent a lot of time thinking about. Sometimes small features can make all the difference in an editor’s preference. The average diner might opine that chef’s knives are the same, but don’t tell that to a real chef!

Avid Media Composer editors rave about the trim tool. Many Adobe Premiere Pro editors swear by Dynamic Link. Some Apple Final Cut Pro editors get frustrated when they have to return to a track-based, non-magnetic NLE. It’s puzzling to me that some FCP stalwarts are vocal about shifting to Resolve (a traditional track-based NLE) if Apple doesn’t add ‘xyz’ feature. That simply doesn’t make sense to me, unless a) you are equally comfortable in track-based versus trackless architectures, and/or b) you truly have the aptitude to make effective use out of an all-in-one application like Resolve. Of course, you can certainly use both side-by-side depending on the task at hand. Cost is no longer an impediment these days. Organize and cut in FCP, and then send an FCPXML of the final sequence to Resolve for the grade, visual effects, and the mix.

It’s horses for courses. I recently read where NFL Films edits in Media Composer, grades in DaVinci Resolve, and conforms/finishes projects in Premiere Pro. That might seem perplexing to some, but makes all the sense in the world to me, because of the different skillsets of the users at those three stages of post. In my day gig, Premiere Pro is also the best choice for our team of editors. Yet, when I have projects that are totally under my control, I’ll often use FCP.

Ultimately there is no single application that is great at each and every element in post production. While the majority of features might fit all of my needs, that may not be true for you or anyone else. The divide between creative editing and finishing is likely to continue – at least at the higher end of production. In that context, Final Cut Pro still makes more sense for a frictionless editing experience, but Resolve is hard to beat for finishing.

There is one final caveat to consider. The post world is changing and much is driven by the independent content creator, as well as the work-from-home transformation. That market segment is cost conscious and subscription business models are less appealing. So Resolve’s entry point at free is attractive. Coupling Resolve with Blackmagic’s low cost, high quality cameras is also a winning strategy for new users. While Resolve can be daunting in its breadth, a new user can start with just the tools needed to complete the project and then learn new aspects of the software over time. As I look down the road, it’s a toss up as to who will be dominant in another ten years.

©2021 Oliver Peters