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

Boris FX Continuum FCP 2021

The software teams at Boris FX have been busy introducing new 2021 versions of their assorted product line. This includes Continuum for Final Cut Pro, which has not only been updated for faster performance, but is in fact a re-imagined product. It’s somewhat stripped down from earlier versions – missing mocha tracking, Primatte keying, and built-in particle illusion effects. (The latter are available through a free, standalone application for the Mac.) Nevertheless, this comprehensive set of lighting effects, film stock emulations, and other image stylizing tools has a lot to offer. It’s bound to be a hit with many users. Check out my in-depth review at FCP.co for all of the details. For even more, here’s a new video from Ian Anderson about using this new version in FCP. Go back to the head of Anderson’s presentation for an in-depth overview of Final Cut Pro.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Audio Plug-ins for Editors – Part 1

Audio mixers and audio editors who spend their time at the business end of a DAW certainly have a solid understanding of audio plug-ins. But often it’s something many video editors don’t know much about. Every NLE includes a useful complement of audio filter effects (plug-ins) that can also be augmented by a wide range of third party options. So it’s worth understanding what you have at your fingertips. After all, audio is at least 50% or more of most video projects. For this and the following three posts, I’ll focus on some thoughts pertaining to what video editors should know about commonly used audio filters.

Numerous audio effects have been highlighted in previous posts. I personally use various Accusonus and iZotope effects on my work, most often for audio clean-up. That’s been very important in this past year with restricted production activity. Quite a lot of my recent edit jobs worked with source material from Zoom calls and self-recorded smartphone video – all with marginal audio quality. So clean-up tools like iZotope RX have been quite important.

Since a lot of what I do is corporate in nature, the mixes are relatively simple – usually voice and music with a minimum of sound effects. Other than some clean-up processing (noise or reverb removal and so on), my most frequently used effects are equalization and compression. These tools let me shape the mix and control levels. 

All audio plug-ins are the same. Or are they?

Audio effects typically come in two flavors. One group could be described as “digital” and is intended to process audio in a transparent fashion without adding tonal color on its own. The other group is considered “analog,” because these filters are intended to emulate the sound of certain analog processing equipment. Naturally, since these are software plug-ins, the processing is actually digital. However, analog-style emulations are designed to mimic the tonal qualities of classic outboard gear or of channel strip circuits built into analog consoles like Neve and SSL.

Tonal color is often created by how the audio is processed, such as the slope of the attack and release characteristics when the filter begins to affect the sound. In theory, you should be able to take a digital-style EQ and boost a frequency by a given amount and Q value (the width of the effect around that frequency). Then, if you apply a second instance of the EQ and cut (lower) that same frequency by the same dB and Q values, the two should cancel each other out and the signal should sound unaffected. An analog-style filter that has been designed to emulate certain models of peripheral gear will not be transparent if you try this same experience.

If you buy two competing digital audio plug-ins that have the same controls and features, then the way each alters the sound will likely be more or less the same. The only difference is the “skin,” i.e. the user interface. However, when you buy an analog audio plug-in, you are looking for certain sound characteristics found in current or vintage analog hardware. A developer could go the route of licensing the exact signal path from the original company. They can then legally display a branded UI that is skeuomorphic and looks just like the physical version that it represents. Waves has an entire repertoire of such effects. So if you want an SSL 4000-series E-type channel strip, they’ve got a software version for you.

The other development approach is to reverse-engineer the sound of that physical gear and release a plug-in that emulates the sound. It might be dead-on or it might only be reminiscent. The skeuomorphic interface is designed to look and feel like that gear. If you know the real device, then you’ll know what that plug-in can be expected to sound like. Apple Logic Pro has a wealth of effects that are emulations. If you want to use a Vox or a Marshall guitar amp filter, simply pick the one that features a similar faceplate. Nowhere does Logic actually call it a Marshall or a Vox, because Apple hasn’t licensed the exact circuits from the original manufacturer. Instead, they classify these as “inspired by” certain musical eras or genres.

Native versus third party effects

Audio plug-ins are installed using one of several protocols, including AAX, AU, and VST/VST3. This means that you can use the same effect in multiple host applications. However, DAWs and NLEs also install their own native effects that are only available within that single application. This can mean better performance versus third-party effects, which is especially true with current versions of Final Cut Pro and macOS.

One of my favorite native filters is the Logic compressor found in both Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro. It features seven compressor styles built into a single plug-in. The choices start with Platinum Digital, which is the digital (clean or transparent) version of this filter. The next six panes are different analog models, which are emulations of such popular outboard gear as Focusrite and DBX. There are two choices each for VCA, FET, and opto-electrical circuit designs.

Set the exact same adjustments in any of the compressor’s panes and the tonal color will vary slightly as you toggle through them. If you are unfamiliar with these, then check out some of the YouTube tutorials that explain the Logic compressor’s operation and which of the actual gear each of these panes is intended to emulate. I personally like the Studio VCA pane, which is based on a Focusrite Red compressor.

In Part 2, I’ll take a deeper look at two of the most common filtering functions – compression and equalization.

©2021 Oliver Peters

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

May 2021 Links

It’s time to check out some more articles and reviews that I’ve written for other publications since January, but which I haven’t reposted here.

Understanding Premiere Pro’s Color Management 

I wrote about trusting Apple Displays. This is a follow-up article about color management and Premiere Pro (Pro Video Coalition).

Aviation and Final Cut Pro – Combining Passions for Compelling Videos 

YouTube influencers are a big part of the content creation landscape today. Their videos cover many, different niches and often have a surprisingly large base of followers. I take a look at YouTube, aviation, and the use of Final Cut Pro to post-produce these videos (FCP.co).

Is Your Audio Mix Too Loud?

Unless you’ve delivered master files for broadcast, you might not be as tuned into meeting delivery specs, especially when it comes to the perceived loudness levels of your mix. I discuss working with audio in Final Cut Pro to mix and master at optimal levels (FCP.co).

Color Finale Transcoder – BRAW, ARRIRAW, DNG and CinemaDNG in FCP

The folks at Color Trix have come up with an ingenious solution to augment Final Cut Pro’s camera raw support. The new Color Finale Transcoder adds additional camera raw formats, notably Blackmagic RAW. Check out my review of the software (FCP.co).

©2021 Oliver Peters