Apple Final Cut Pro X

Apple Final Cut Pro had been rocking along for twelve years, gaining professional market share and becoming a versatile platform for many editors, facilities and developers. But it was time for a change, especially after the 2009 update, which many editors felt was too incremental. Behind the scenes, Apple had been working on an entirely new version designed to take advantage of Apple’s modern operating system and hardware. After all, Final Cut Pro had evolved from the original Windows-based Key Grip application to a Mac OS 9-based Final Cut Pro, which then flourished under the transition to Mac OS X. With such a storied past, it was clear that a complete, from-the-ground-up rewrite was needed to modernize the code and feature set. In typical Apple fashion, this also offered the opportunity to re-imagine the inherent concepts of nonlinear editing.

In June, Apple rolled out Final Cut Pro X (10.0) as the successor to Final Cut Pro. Unlike the most recent versions of Final Cut Studio, Final Cut Pro X is no longer a suite of applications, but rather a single application, available only via download from the Apple App Store for $299.99. In addition, the updated Motion 5 and Compressor 4 applications are also available from the App Store for an additional $49.99 each.

In a move that has dismayed many loyal users, Apple removed the previous version, thus eliminating Final Cut Studio (Final Cut Pro, Color, DVD Studio Pro, Soundtrack Pro, Compressor, Cinema Tools and Motion), Final Cut Express and Final Cut Server. For now, Soundtrack Pro still exists as part of the Logic Studio bundle. Of course, previous video applications, like Shake and LiveType were eliminated several years ago. The bottom line is that the current Apple video family is focused on a smaller, but more cohesive video group that includes iMovie, Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5 and Compressor 4.

Built for speed

Final Cut Pro X has zero similarity with the previous Final Cut versions. It is a 64-bit application, which runs on the latest version of Mac OS X Snow Leopard (minimum 10.6.7 with ProKit 7.0) or Lion (10.7) and the whole range of recent Apple hardware. I did my testing on a 1 ½ year old 2.26GHz eight-core Mac Pro (Mac OS X 10.6.8) with 12GB of RAM and the ATI 5870 graphics card.

All of this optimization pays off in better support for larger formats, such as 4K-sized projects and native editing with H.264 files, like those from a Canon 5D. In my testing, FCP X was very responsive with all types of media with both rendered and unrendered effects. Real-time performance is generally maintained at all times with minimal instances of frames being dropped, compared to the “classic” versions of FCP. Since some of this performance boost is a due to how FCP X pre-loads media into RAM, the more memory you can install, the better performance you’ll enjoy.

I compared this against media performance in other NLEs, like Avid Media Composer or Adobe Premiere Pro. The playback and media scrubbing responsiveness with optimized media formats and accelerated effects was fairly similar in all three. FCP X performed well, but didn’t necessarily outshine the others at SD and HD frame sizes. Performance of 2K and 4K-sized ProRes files had a definite advantage with Final Cut and H.264 media handling seemed the best out of the three. The “wow” performance feature is Skimming, which is a technique of scrubbing media clips anywhere in the interface, simply by hovering over the clip and moving the mouse. No clicking required. In spite of these media improvements, some formats, like REDCODE raw, are not natively supported yet and AVC-Intra still requires a copy and rewrap into QuickTime MOV container.

Three big marquee features are Synchronization, Audition and the Precision Editor. Synchronization is designed to allow you to auto-sync clips by timecode, markers, in-points or audio content. This latter capability should allow you to match double-system sound from two sources to each other. For instance, a camera clip with camera audio to an externally recorded sound file. I tried this with some Canon 5D clips and Zoom H4N WAV files, which had previously synced well using FCP 7 and Singular Software’s PluralEyes. My initial test didn’t seem to work, but when I tried it again a day later it was fine. It’s quite possible that there was some background analysis required and that I hadn’t allowed enough time. In any case, on the second day it worked quite well for all of the clips I had tested. The result is a new Compound Clip marked as a Synchronized Clip, which contains the camera and audio clips. The camera audio can then be turned off in the Viewer’s inspector tab.

An Audition clip is a single, nested clip containing several different selected shots, such as alternate performance takes. Audition clips can be edited to the timeline and then you may select and preview any one of the shots from the Audition clip, without re-editing the other shots into the timeline. This feature is handy when working in client-supervised sessions, where you might quickly preview alternate clips in context without ever leaving the timeline.

The Precision Editor is a tool lifted from iMovie. Instead of the usual trim tools for rolling edits, the Precision Editor displays two adjacent clips on the timeline in an over-under filmstrip format. You can see the available media past the cut for the outgoing and incoming clip. For me, the standard ways of trimming are better – and they’ve been improved in FCP X over FCP 7 – but the Precision Editor does offer a method that mimics a film-style way of working.

The whole intent of this revamp is to keep the creative juices flowing without interruption. Performance is largely real-time and there are many background processes, like automatic analysis and rendering. There’s no Save or Auto-save function, because the application is continually updating its current status.

The user interface

The most obvious change is the user interface design. FCP X is built with single-display configurations in mind using a fixed layout; however, you can spread it across two screens. In a dual-display layout, either the Event Library/Browser or the Viewer can be moved to a second display, but you can no longer move floating, dockable windows and reconfigure the entire layout. FCP X sports a more pleasing, darker interface design, with updated icons like those in iMovie. It is intended as a full-screen application designed to hide other applications underneath – much like most Windows programs.

The previous version of Final Cut was built on the popular paradigm that stemmed from both film and linear editing, utilizing a source and record window (Viewer and Canvas), a timeline for edits and a set of folders or bins for source clips. This has been replaced by a single unified Viewer, which can display the timeline, as well as source clips. In addition, all source clips can be viewed as filmstrips that can be directly scrubbed or skimmed for edit selection.

New concept – the Events database

Changing the viewer would have been a minor change, but Apple also completely revamped how Final Cut Pro X deals with media. The past organization of Capture Scratch folders, FCP Project files and a Browser with master clips and sequences has been tossed out the window. Media is now organized as Events and stored on your designated hard drive in a Final Cut Events folder. An Event is a set of files that could represent a tape, a camera card, a day of shooting or some other definition.

When media is imported as a file or from tape into an Event, you have the option to create/transcode optimized (ProRes) or proxy (ProRes Proxy) media during this step. You can’t choose other ProRes codecs; however, existing files using ProRes HQ or ProRes 4444 will be copied as optimized media, but not transcoded. Or you can simply link to media in another folder on your hard drives. In the first process, the new media copies are stored in the corresponding Events folder. In the latter step, only an alias of that file is stored. During either of these steps metadata is created that’s associated with the files in the Events database. A number of items can be analyzed, including stabilization/rolling shutter issues, color balance, audio problems and shot identification. This analysis can be applied during import or after the fact, but it’s always a background process.

Although these background processes are cool, I did find them getting in the way at times. For instance, skimming was affected by background rendering. Often background processes are paused when you engage in work, since they are designed to utilize the machine’s idle time. I found it was better to turn off all automatic import analysis and then use individual functions, like color balance or stabilization on selected clips only when actually needed.

The entire method of clip organization is designed around a relational database. Events can be organized through the use of Keyword Collections and Smart Collections, which replace traditional bins. Rather than go through clips and manually move them into different bins, FCP X intends the editor to assign keywords and let the system handle the organization. This will permit one clip to appear in more than one collection based on context. For example, you could have one keyword collection for a specific scene and a second for all clips featuring a certain actor. All clips that matched these two criteria (scene and actor) would appear in both collections. Keywords can also be assigned to a range within a clip. Think of these tools as a replacement for subclipping.

One analysis feature is to have FCP X determine the shot type, based on People. The software will analyze a set of clips and create Smart Collections for One Person, Two People, Wide Shot, Medium Shot, etc. It’s a neat concept, but unfortunately, like most automatic analysis, I found it was frequently wrong. For instance, grouping a two-shot in the One Person collection and other such mistakes.

It’s important to realize that when you are working in the Event Browser in FCP X, you are actively working with the actual media and not merely clips that reference media. Therefore, changes you make can be destructive, like moving a clip to the trash. If one of these media files is altered by another application, it will become off-line within FCP X. This happened to me when I opened some of the files in Premiere Pro, which altered the embedded metadata. As a result, FCP X no longer saw these as the same files. There is no simple Reconnect Media process. Often an off-line media file can be removed from the browser and re-imported, but re-linking has become harder than in the past, as part of Apple’s effort to make FCP X media management rock-solid.

More new concepts – Projects and Storylines

Terminology gets a bit confusing with Final Cut Pro X if you try to equate it to other NLEs. Timelines in FCP 7 were referred to as Sequences and a Project file contained all the data, including master clips (not media) and edited sequences. In Final Cut Pro X there is no single file containing all the data associated with an editing job or session. Clip metadata has been broken out as part of the Events database. Projects contain the edit information and location of render files, but there is only one timeline per project. This becomes clear if you look at the library files on your hard drive, which are also broken out according to Events and Projects. If you typically create a lot of sequence copies as various versions of a cut, then that same task is achieved by duplicating a Project.

The biggest change for editors is that Apple has decided to redefine how we think of editing itself. They’ve dropped the video/audio track metaphor in favor of the concept of Storylines. It’s based on the way most narrative pieces are structured, where sound bites are edited together to tell the story. Then cutaway shots are built around these to enhance the visuals or hide edits made in the interviews.

In FCP 7, the sound bites would have been assembled as synced audio/video clips edited to V1 and A1/A2. Cutaway shots would be edited to V2 as video-only clips. In FCP X, the sound bites are assembled as combined audio/video clips to the Primary Storyline. Cutaway shots are edited as Connected Clips, which are attached to points on the Storyline and appear above it; however, vertical hierarchy isn’t really track-based. For example, an audio clip can be above a video clip in the timeline window, but in general, the visibility of a video clip works top-down, as before. If you need to build a series of cutaway clips as a group, complete with transitions, then these can be connected to each other as a secondary Storyline, which in turn is connected to the primary Storyline. Although this sounds confusing, Apple has essentially replaced the track metaphor with Storyline “lanes”.

A key aspect of this new approach is the Magnetic Timeline. This is a way of keeping clips together as you rearrange them on the timeline. By using combined A/V clips, together with connected clips, it’s possible to quickly change the order of a group of associated clips (audio, video and cutaways), simply by moving one of them. The rest will follow and the timeline opens or closes accordingly. Or if you trim a clip in the primary Storyline, the connected clips will ripple their position, as well. Auto-selection, locking tracks and clip collisions are gone, because conflicting audio or video elements will move up or down out the way to allow the change to be made. A group of clips can be “collapsed” or “nested” into a single timeline element called a Compound Clip, which can then be manipulated as a single unit.

Effects and color

There has been a huge change in effects with Final Cut Pro X. Current FCP 7 plug-ins won’t work until updated. FCP X effects are really Motion projects based on the new 64-bit FxPlug2 architecture. There are quite a few presets and the control parameters have been restricted to make it easier for new users.

If you really want more effects horsepower, then you will need to also purchase Motion 5. You can open a clip or an FCP X effect in Motion 5, but you can no longer “round trip” a timeline clip from FCP X to Motion 5 and back. There is no Send To Motion function. Although Motion 5 still works as an advanced, standalone compositor, it didn’t really get a huge performance boost. The user interface was rearranged, darkened and streamlined, but it seems to be intended as a developer’s tool to build effects and templates that can be used within FCP X.

In this scenario, a graphic designer might use Motion 5 to support a number of FCP X editors, who themselves might never touch Motion 5. The designer would use Motion 5 to create and/or modify effects and templates that would then appear within each user’s FCP X effects palette. This is enabled by the new Rig tool in Motion 5. A Rig is a mechanism to combine a set of adjustable parameters into a single control, like a slider or drop-down menu. Parameters are published – meaning that specific sliders are made visible and adjustable within FCP X.

Noise Industries had early access to the effects API and was able to release a free update of FxFactory compatible with FCP X and Motion 5, as well as the other supported hosts. Only the FxFactory Pro filters appear as effects, transitions and generators inside Final Cut Pro X. If you open Motion 5, you’ll see some of the other partners’ effects, like those from Idustrial Revolution, Luca Visual FX or DV Shade. These employ custom interfaces in their filter panels, which isn’t permitted in the new FCP X design. I presume this will also affect other popular effects filters, like Magic Bullet Colorista II. Nevertheless, having FxFactory inside FCP X gives the editor a much better palette than sticking with the built-in effects.

A lot has been made about ending Apple Color and whether or not those tools are in Final Cut Pro X. I’d have to say no they aren’t, although color correction is way more advanced than in FCP 7. Color correction and grading happens in three places – the automatic color balance and Color Match controls, as well as the Color Board. Automatic balance and Color Match work by changing information in the color profile of the image. Analysis is based on the section of the clip you use. Changes made are not visible in any of the color correction controls, though, which means you won’t really know what values have been changed. You can use the Color Board to correct a shot and then automatically match a different shot to that correction, however, the changes in the second shot will be made in the profile and not the controls.

The Color Board is where you perform subjective color grading and it’s the replacement for the older 3-way color corrector. There are three tabs for color (hue), saturation and exposure (lift/gamma/gain). Each tab features shadow, midrange, highlight and global controls. I personally find color wheels and curves to be faster and more intuitive, but Apple used this new design to conserve screen real estate. You can stack a series of corrections to create secondary adjustments, like adding vignettes or isolating a specific color through HSL keying.

The color adjustments for hue work in a similar way to the additive/subtractive toning used by DV Shade EasyLooks and also Adobe Lightroom. If you want more blue overall, simply move the global button in the color tab to the blue swatch and above the line (positive range). For less blue, then move it below the line (negative range) in the same region of the blue swatch. This subtracts blue from the overall image. Think of it more as painting with color, rather than shifting color balance.

I was generally happy with the quality of the correction I could achieve, although I found the color (hue) controls to be a bit coarse, as compared with traditional hue offset controls (color wheels). Unfortunately, there’s no true color grading workflow for easy scene-to-scene grading, as you have in Color. There is no word whether the FCP X Color Board interface will eventually be compatible with the various third-party control surfaces, like Avid Artist Color or Tangent Devices Wave.

How to get in and out of FCP X

Apple is clear that it has designed an NLE from the ground up for the file-based world, so tape support is gone, with the exception of legacy support for FireWire-based cameras and decks. Even there, the control is limited to a “capture now” approach without extensive logging. The slack will be taken up by utilities offered by the i/o hardware makers, like AJA, Blackmagic Design, Matrox, MOTU and Telestream. And yes, they have utilities to capture to QuickTime and lay off to tape independent of FCP X or FCP 7. These will be enhanced to work in tandem with FCP X.

Currently FCP X can only be displayed to a broadcast video monitor as a full screen desktop image. Using the ability of a card like AJA’s Kona 3G to mirror a Mac desktop display, FCP X can be monitored as preview quality only. That’s generally fine for editing, but you can’t output to tape that way. You’ll need to export a self-contained QuickTime file and then use a utility to edit it to tape.

With the loss of DVD Studio Pro, Final Cut Pro X and Compressor 4 retain only basic DVD and Blu-ray capabilities. You can encode and burn a disc from the FCP X Share Menu or Compressor, but in either case, these are only intended for simple discs without advanced authoring features. I presume Apple feels that’s a dead-end business and if you needed those functions, you would already own the previous version of Final Cut Studio. (You can continue to use your existing installation of DVD Studio Pro, of course.) Naturally, presets for mobile devices and various online destinations have been expanded. Compressor itself didn’t get much of an overhaul, but did gain support for TIFF and Open EXR image sequences. Apple Qmaster controls are now built into the top menu.

The biggest i/o issue that has troubled users is the lack of project compatibility – especially the fact that you cannot import an existing FCP 7 project. There was a nice ecosystem of developers than grew up around XML, EDL, OMF and other open format support offered by previous versions of Final Cut. In this initial version, FCP X cannot import or export any type of sequence or project format, except bringing in an iMovie project. Apple says that the data formats of FCP 7 and FCP X are so different that a lot of the information would be lost in the translation. That’s of little consolation to FCP editors who routinely have to revisit past projects. Although a third-party translation solution might arise in the coming months, Apple has given no clear indication whether they would supply a built-in solution nor whether they’d offer it as a free update.

Many professional editors have to interchange projects with other studios and facilities. For example, even with local market TV spots, I often send files to one of the audio studios in town, because that’s who the agencies want to work with for their mix. OMF has been the standard interchange file for both Pro Tools and Logic, as well as many other DAWs. OMF export was there in FCP 7 and gone in FCP X. There is also no Send to Soundtrack Pro or Send To Logic feature in FCP X. In short, there is simply no way to send audio clips with track assignments and edit points from Final Cut Pro X to any audio editing application.

Fortunately, Apple allowed Automatic Duck into the process early enough to support FCP X with the simultaneous release of Pro Export FCP 5.0. This is a standalone application rather than a plug-in. Simply launch Pro Export and drag the FCP X project from the project browser window to the Automatic Duck window and it will generate either an AAF or OMF file. I tested an OMF export and timeline and associated audio files opened just fine in Adobe’s Audition, but ironically not in Apple’s own Soundtrack Pro.

Wrapping it up

Final Cut Pro X is very different and it takes a while to get used to it. I’ve been beating on the evaluation software provided by Apple for about two weeks as I write this review, along with a few hours worth of press briefings from Apple staff. I’ve also conferred with probably a dozen colleagues who are also trying to shake it out, including a number of experienced feature film editors. Without a doubt, it’s definitely worth tapping into some of the various training materials if you want to use Final Cut Pro X to its fullest. The manual (available as online Help or a downloadable 395-page PDF) covers a lot, but I’ve already hit a number of undocumented features and I’m sure there are many more.

At the end of the day, this is still a developing product that isn’t ideal for every high-end situation where FCP 7 has succeeded. FCP X is a tool intended to be easier to use by people who aren’t necessarily full-time editors – meaning event videographers, video journalists, producer/directors who occasionally edit and corporate presentation professionals. These are users who may not exclusively edit for a living, but expect professional results that can’t be achieved with iMovie. Apple has focused on an architectural design for the coming decade with an eye towards people who are just starting out as video professionals and will grow with the product.

The sweet spot today for Final Cut Pro X is a production that is file-based and can be completely started and finished within FCP X without the need for interchange with other applications. According to Apple, the App Store online distribution method now allows them to offer updates more quickly than before. They have promised to address a number of the most-requested features within weeks and months, rather than years.

The current version is quite stable for a 1.0 product. If you can deal with the limitations and are dying to see whether Apple’s re-imagining of nonlinear editing is a better way for you to tell the story, then Final Cut Pro X might be right for you. But if you are a professional user with established, advanced workflows, it will likely be a frustrating experience in that scenario. FCP X is ready for prime time now, although Prime Time might not be ready for it!

Written for DV and Videography magazines (NewBay Media LLC)

©2011 Oliver Peters