Putting Apple’s iMac Pro Through the Paces

At the end of December, Apple made good on the release of the new iMac Pro and started selling and shipping the new workstations. While this could be characterized as a stop-gap effort until the next generation of Mac Pro is produced, that doesn’t detract from the usefulness and power of this design in its own right. After all, the iMac line is the direct descendant in spirit and design of the original Macintosh. Underneath the sexy, all-in-one, space grey enclosure, the iMac Pro offers serious workstation performance.

I work mostly these days with a production company that produces and posts commercials, corporate videos, and entertainment programming. Our editing set-up consists of seven workstations, plus an auxiliary machine connected to a common QNAP shared storage network. These edit stations consisted of a mix of old and new Mac Pros and iMacs (connected via 10GigE), with a Mac Mini for the auxiliary (1GigE). It was time to upgrade the oldest machines, which led us to consider the iMac Pros. The company picked up three of them – replacing two Mac Pro towers and an older iMac. The new configuration is a mix of three, one-year-old Retina 5K iMacs (late 2015 model), a 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro, and three 2017 iMac Pros.

There are plenty of videos and articles on the web about how these machines perform; but, the testers often use artificial benchmarks or only Final Cut Pro X. This shop has a mix of NLEs (Adobe, Apple, Avid, Blackmagic Design), but our primary tool is Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2018. This gave me a chance to compare how these machines stacked up against each other in the kind of work we actually do. This comparison isn’t truly apples-to-apples, since the specs of the three different products are somewhat different from each other. Nevertheless, I feel that it’s a valid real-world assessment of the iMac Pros in a typical, modern post environment.

Why buy iMac Pros at all?

The question to address is why should someone purchase these machines? Let me say right off the bat, that if your main focus is 3D animation or heavy compositing using After Effects or other applications – and speed and performance are the most important factor – then don’t buy an Apple computer. Period. There are plenty of examples of Dell and HP workstations, along with high-end gaming PCs, that outperform any of the Macs. This is largely due to the availability of advanced NVidia GPUs for the PC, which simply aren’t an option for current Macs.

On the other hand, if you need a machine that’s solid and robust across a wide range of postproduction tasks – and you prefer the Mac operating ecosystem – then the iMac Pros are a good choice. Yes, the machine is pricy and you can buy cheaper gaming PCs and DIY workstations, but if you stick to the name brands, like Dell and HP, then the iMac Pros are competitively priced. In our case, a shift to PC would have also meant changing out all of the machines and not just three – therefore, even more expensive.

Naturally, the next thing is to compare price against the current 5K iMacs and 2013 Mac Pros. Apple’s base configuration of the iMac Pro uses an 8-core 3.2GHz Xeon W CPU, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD, and the Radeon Pro Vega 56 GPU (8GB memory) for $4,999. A comparably configured 2013 Mac Pro is $5,207 (with mouse and keyboard), but no display. Of course, it also has the dual D-700 GPUs. The 5K iMac in a similar configuration is $3,729. Note that we require 10GigE connectivity, which is built into the iMac Pros. Therefore, in a direct comparison, you would need to bump up the iMac and Mac Pro prices by about $500 for a Thunderbolt2-to-10GigE converter.

Comparing these numbers for similar machines, you’d spend more for the Mac Pro and less for the iMac. Yet, the iMac Pro uses newer processors and faster RAM, so it could be argued that it’s already better out of the gate in the base configuration than Apple’s former top-of-the-line product. It has more horsepower than the tricked-out iMac, so then it becomes a question of whether the cost difference is important to you for what you are getting.

Build quality

Needless to say, Apple has a focus on the quality and fit-and-finish of its products. The iMac Pro is no exception. Except for the space grey color, it looks like the regular 27” iMacs and just as nicely built. However, let me quibble a bit with a few things. First, the edges of the case and foot tend to be a bit sharp. It’s not a huge issue, but compared with an iPhone, iPad, or 2013 Mac Pro, the edges just not as smooth and rounded. Secondly, you get a wireless mouse and extended keyboard. Both have to be plugged in to charge. In the case of the mouse, the cable plugs in at the bottom, rendering it useless during charging. Truly a bad design. The wireless keyboard is the newer, flatter style, so you lose two USB ports that were on the previous plug-in extended keyboard. Personally, I prefer the features and feel of the previous keyboard, not to mention any scroll wheel mouse over the Magic Mouse. Of course, those are strictly items of personal taste.

With the iMac Pro, Apple is transitioning its workstations to Thunderbolt 3, using USB-C connectors. Previous Thunderbolt 2 ports have been problematic, because the cables easily disconnect. In fact, on our existing iMacs, it’s very easy to disconnect the Thunderbolt 2 cable that connects us to the shared storage network, simply by moving the iMac around to get to the ports on the back. The USB-C connectors feel more snug, so hopefully we will find that to be an improvement. If you need to get to the back of the iMac or iMac Pro frequently, in order to plug in drives, dongles, etc., then I would highly recommend one of the docks from CalDigit or OWC as a valuable accessory.

5K screen

Apple spends a lot of marketing hype on promoting their 5K Retina screens. The 27” screens have a raw pixel resolution of 5120×2880 pixels, but that’s not what you see in terms of image and user interface dimensions. To start with, the 5K iMacs and iMac Pros use the same screen resolution and the default display setting (middle scaled option) is 2560×1440 pixels. The top choice is 3200×1800. Of course, if you use that setting, everything becomes extremely small on screen.  Conversely, our 2013 Mac Pro is connected to a 27” Apple LED Cinema Display (non Retina). It’s top scaled resolution is also 2560×1440 pixels. Therefore, at the most useable settings, all of our workstations are set to the same resolution. Even if you scale the resolution up (images and UI get smaller), you are going to end up adjusting the size of the application interface and viewer window. While you might see different viewer size percentage numbers between the machines, the effective size on screen will be the same.

Retina is Apple’s marketing name for high pixel density. This is the equivalent of DPI (dots per inch) in print resolutions. According to a Macworld article, iPhones from 4 to 5s had a pixel density of 326ppi (pixels per inch), while iMacs have 218ppi. Apple converts a device’s display to Retina by doubling the horizontal and vertical pixel count. More pixels are applied to any given area on the screen, resulting in smoother text, smoother diagonal lines, and so on. That’s assuming an application’s interface is optimized for it. At the distance that the editors sit from a 27” display, there is simply little or no difference between the look of the 27” LED display and the 27” iMac Retina screens.

Upgradeability

Future-proofing and upgrades are the biggest negatives thrown at all-in-ones, particularly the iMac Pros. While the user can upgrade RAM in the standard iMacs, that’s not the case with iMac Pros. You can upgrade RAM in the future, but that must be done at a service facility, such as the Apple Store’s Genius service. This means that in three years, when you want the latest, greatest CPU, GPU, storage, etc., you won’t be able to swap out components. But is this really an issue? I’m sure Apple has user research numbers to justify their decisions. Plus, the thermal design of the iMac would make user upgrades difficult, unlike older mac Pro towers.

In my own experience on personal machines, as well as clients’ machines that I’ve helped maintain, I have upgraded storage, GPU cards, and RAM, but never the CPU. Although I do know others who have upgraded Xeon models on their Mac Pro towers. Part of the dichotomy is buying what you can afford now and upgrading later, versus stretching a bit up front and then not needing to upgrade later. My gut feeling is that Apple is pushing the latter approach.

If I tally up the cost of the upgrades that I’ve made after about three years, I would already be part of the way towards a newer, better machine anyway. Plus, if you are cutting HD and even 4K today, then just about any advanced machine will do the trick, making it less likely that you’ll need to do that upgrade within the foreseeable life of the machine. An argument can be made for either approach, but I really think that the vast majority of users – even professional users – never actually upgrade any of the internal hardware from that of the configuration as originally purchased.

Performance testing

We ultimately purchased machines that were the 10-core bump-up from the base configuration, feeling that this is the sweet spot (and is currently available) within the iMac Pro product line.

The new machine specs within the facility now look like this:

2013 Mac Pro – 3GHz 8-core Xeon/64GB RAM/dual D-500 GPUs/1TB SSD (Sierra)

2015 iMac – 4GHz 4-core Core i7/32GB RAM/AMD R9/3TB Fusion drive (Sierra)

2017 iMac Pro – 3GHz 10-core Xeon W/64GB RAM/Radeon Vega 64/1TB SSD (High Sierra)

As you can see, the tech specs of the new iMac Pros more closely match the 2013 Mac Pro than the year-old 5K iMacs. Of course, it’s not a perfect match for optimal benchmark testing, but close enough for a good read on how well the iMac Pro delivers in a real working environment.

Test 1 – BruceX

The BruceX test uses a 5K Final Cut Pro X timeline made up only of built-in titles and generators. The timeline is then rendered out to a ProRes file. This tests the pure application without any media and codec variables. It’s a bit of an artificial test and only applicable to FCPX performance, but still useful. The faster the export time, the better. (I have bolded the best results.)

2013 Mac Pro – 26.8 sec.

2015 iMac – 28.3 sec.

2017 iMac Pro – 14.4 sec.

Test 2 – media encoding

In my next test, I took a 4½-minute-long 1080p ProRes file and rendered it to a 4K/UHD (3840×2160) H.264 (1-pass CBR 20Mbps) file. Not only was it being encoded, but also scaled up to 4K in this process. I rendered from and to the desktop, to eliminate any variables from the QNAP system. Finally, I conducted the test using both Adobe Media Encoder (using OpenCL processing) and Apple Compressor.

Two noteworthy issues. The Compressor test was surprisingly slow on the Mac Pro. (I actually ran the Compressor test twice, just to be certain about the slowness of the Mac Pro.) The AME version kicked in the fans on the iMac.

Adobe Media Encoder

2013 Mac Pro – 6:13 min.

2015 iMac – 7:14 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 4:48 min.

 Compressor

2013 Mac Pro – 11:02 min.

2015 iMac – 2:20 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 2:19 min.

 Test 3 – editing timeline playback – multi-layered sequence

This was a difficult test designed to break during unrendered playback. The 40-second 1080p/23.98 sequence include six layers of resized 4K source media.

Layer 1 – DJI clips with dissolves between the clips

Layers 2-5 – 2D PIP ARRI Alexa clips (no LUTs); layer 5 had a Gaussian blur effect added

Layer 6 – native REDCODE RAW with minor color correction

The sequence was created in both Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro. Playback was tested with the media located on the QNAP volumes, as well as from the desktop (this should provide the best possible playback).

Playing back this sequence in Final Cut Pro X from the QNAP resulted is the video output largely choking on all of the machines. Playing it back in Premiere Pro from the QNAP was slightly better than in FCPX, with the 2017 iMac Pro performing best of all. It played, but was still choppy.

When I tested playback from the desktop, all three machines performed reasonably well using both Final Cut Pro X (“best performance”) and Premiere Pro (“1/2 resolution”). There were some frames dropped, although the iMac Pro played back more smoothly than the other two. In fact, in Premiere Pro, I was able to set the sequence to “full resolution” and get visually smooth playback, although the indicator light still noted dropped frames. Typically, as each staggered layer kicked in, performance tended to hiccup.

Test 4 – editing timeline playback – single-layer sequence

 This was a simpler test using a standard workflow. The 30-second 1080p/23.98 sequence included three Alexa clips (no LUTs) with dissolves between the clips. Each source file was 4K/UHD and had a “punch-in” and reposition within the HD frame. Each also included a slight, basic color correction. Playback was tested in Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro, as well as from the QNAP system and the desktop. Quality settings were increased to “best quality” in FCPX and “full resolution” in Premiere Pro.

My complex timeline in Test 3 appeared to perform better in Premiere Pro. In Test 4, the edge was with Final Cut Pro X. No frames were dropped with any of the three machines playing back either from the QNAP or the desktop, when testing in FCPX. In Premiere Pro, the 2017 iMac Pro was solid in both situations. The 2015 iMac was mostly smooth at “full” and completely smooth at “1/2”. Unfortunately, the 2013 Mac Pro seemed to be the worst of the three, dropping frames even at “1/2 resolution” at each dissolve within the timeline.

Test 5 – timeline renders (multi-layered sequence)

In this test, I took the complex sequence from Test 3 and exported it to a ProRes master file. I used the QNAP-connected versions of the Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X timelines and rendered the exports to the desktop. In FCPX, I used its default Share function. In Premiere Pro, I queued the export to Adobe Media Encoder set to process in OpenCL. This was one of the few tests in which the 2013 Mac Pro put in a faster time, although the iMac Pro was very close.

Rendering to ProRes – Premiere Pro (via Adobe Media Encoder)

2013 Mac Pro – 1:29 min.

2015 iMac – 2:29 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 1:45 min.

Rendering to ProRes – Final Cut Pro X

2013 Mac Pro – 1:21 min.

2015 iMac – 2:29 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 1:22 min.

Test 6 – Adobe After Effects – rendering composition

My final test was to see how well the iMac Pro performed in rendering out compositions from After Effects. This was a 1080p/23.98 15-second composition. The bottom layer was a JPEG still with a Color Finesse correction. On top of that were five 1080p ProResLT video clips that had been slomo’ed to fill the composition length. Each was scaled, cropped, and repositioned. Each was beveled with a layer style and had a stylized effect added to it. The topmost layer was a camera layer with all other layers set to 3D, so the clips could be repositioned in z-space. Using the camera, I added a slight rotation/perspective change over the life of the composition.

Rendering to ProRes – After Effects

2013 Mac Pro – 2:37 min.

2015 iMac – 2:15 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 2:03 min.

Conclusion

After all of this testing, one is left with the answer “it depends”. The 2013 Mac Pro has two GPUs, but not every application takes advantage of that. Some apps tax all the available cores, so more, but slower, cores are better. Others go for the maximum speed on fewer cores. All things considered, the iMac Pro performed at the top of these three machines. It was either the best or close/equal to the best.

There is no way to really quantify actual editing playback performance and resolution by any numerical factor. However, it is interesting to look at the aggregate of the six tests that could be quantified. When you compare the cumulative totals of just the iMac Pro and the iMac, the Pro came out 48% faster. Compared to the 2013 Mac Pro, it was 85% faster. The iMac Pro’s performance against the totals of the slowest machines (either iMac or Mac Pro depending on the test), showed it being a whopping 113% faster – more than twice as fast. But it only bested the fastest set by 20%. Naturally, such comparisons are more curiosity than anything else. Some of these numbers will be meaningful and others won’t, depending on the apps used and a user’s storage situation.

I will say that installing these three machines was the easiest I’ve ever done, including connecting them to the 10GigE storage network. The majority of our apps come from Adobe Create Cloud, the Mac App Store, or FxFactory (for plug-ins). Except for a few other installers, there was largely no need to track down installers, activation information, etc. for a zillion small apps and plug-ins. This made it a breeze and is certainly part of the attraction of the Mac ecosystem. The iMac Pro’s all-in-one design limits the required peripherals, which also contributes to a faster installation. Naturally, I can’t tell anyone if this is the right machine for them, but so far, the investment does look like the correct choice for this shop’s needs.

(Updated 6/22/18)

Here are two additional impressions by working editors: Thomas Grove Carter and Ben Balser. Also a very comprehensive review from AppleInsider.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Apple Final Cut Pro X 10.4

December finally delivered the much-anticipated simultaneous release of new versions of Apple Final Cut Pro X, Motion, and Compressor – all on the same day as the iMac Pro officially went on sale. In the broader ecosystem, we also saw updates for macOS High Sierra, Logic Pro X, Pixelmator Pro, and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve.

Final Cut Pro X (“ten”), version 10.4 is the fifth major release of Apple’s professional NLE in a little over six years. There are changes under the hood tied to technologies in High Sierra (macOS 10.13), which won’t get much press, but are very important in the development and operation of an application. This version will still run on a wide range of recent and older Macs. The minimum OS requirement is 10.12.4, but 10.13 or later is recommended. There are four new, marquee features in this release: advanced color correction tools, 360° editing, HDR (wide gamut) color space support, and HEVC/H.265 codec support for editing and encoding.

New advanced color tools

Final Cut Pro X was first launched with a color correction tool called the color board. It substituted sliders on a color swatch for the standard curves and color wheel controls that editors had been used to. While the color board was and is effective, as well as a bit deceptive in what you can accomplish, it was an instant turn-off for many. The lack of a more advanced color correction interface opened the field for third party color correction plug-in developers who came up with some great tools. With the release of FCPX 10.4, it’s hard for me to see why FCPX diehards would still buy a color correction plug-in. Yet, I have heard from at least one plug-in developer that their color corrector plug-in sales are staying stable. Clearly users want choice and that’s a good thing.

With this update, you’ve gained three new, native color tools, including color wheels, curves, and hue vs. saturation curves. All are elegantly designed, operate quite fluidly, and generally mimic what you can do in DaVinci Resolve. However, the color board didn’t go away however. There’s a preference setting for which of these four color tools is the default effect when first applying color correction (CMD+6).

Once you start color correcting, you can add more instances of any of these four tools in any combination. Final Cut Pro X sports robust performance, so you can apply several layers of correction to a clip and still have real-time playback without rendering. There are also additional keyboard commands to quickly step through effects or clips on your timeline. While not quite as fluid of a grading workflow as you’d have in a true color correction application, like Resolve, you can get pretty close with some experience. My biggest beef is that you are limited to the controls being locked within the inspector pane. You can’t move the controls around and there is no special color correction workspace. So for me, the ergonomics are poor. In my testing, I’ve also hit some flaws in how the processing is done (more on that in a future post). Ironically the color board actually seems to achieve more accurate correction than the color wheels.

There are a few quirks. Previously created presets for the color board will be converted into color preset effects, which now appear in the effects browser. This enables you to preview a color preset applied to a clip by skimming over the effect thumbnail. Unfortunately, I found this conversion didn’t always work. On a Sierra machine (10.12), the older presets were automatically converted after waiting a few minutes; however, nothing happened on a High Sierra machine (10.13). I eventually resorted to copying my converted effects presets from the Sierra Mac over to the High Sierra Mac. I suspect, that because the High Sierra update automatically reformats the internal SSD drive to the new Apple File System (APFS), this conversion process is somehow impeded. Of course, if you don’t already have any existing custom presets, then it’s not an issue.

(You can check out my previously-created color presets for instructions and downloads here.)

There is no control surface support yet, although future support for third party color correction controllers has been alluded to. It would be nice to see support for Tangent or Avid panels at the very least. There’s a new FCPXML version (1.7) that includes this new color metadata; however, it doesn’t seem to be imported into the newest version of Resolve. It’s possible that color metadata in the FCPXML file is only intended for FCPX-to-FCPX transfers and not round tripping to other applications.

360° editing

Let me say up front that this doesn’t hit my hot button. It’s an area where Apple is playing catch-up to Adobe. Quite frankly, for both of these companies, it only appeals to a small percentage of users. Not all 360° formats are supported. Your footage must be equirectangular (stitched panorama), in order that FCPX can properly correct its display. Nevertheless, if you do work on 360° productions, then FCPX provides you a nice tool kit.

You can set up your timeline sequence for monoscopic or stereoscopic 360° editing. Once set up, simply open a separate 360° viewer, side-by-side to the normal viewer. When you do this, you’ll see the uncorrected image on the right and the adjusted point-of-view image on the left. What’s really cool, is that you can play the timeline and actively navigate your view of the content within of the 360° viewer, without ever stopping playback. Plus I’m talking about 4K material here! Clearly the engineers have tweaked the performance and not just integrated a plug-in.

There are also a set of custom effects designed for seamless use on 360° images. For example, if you apply a standard blur, there will be a visible seam where the left and right edges meet. If you apply a 360° blur effect, then the image and effect are properly blended. If you want to get the full effect, just attach an HTC Vive VR headset to view clips in full 360°. Want to test this, but don’t have any footage? A quick web search will provide a ton of downloadable, equirectangular clips to play with.

Wide gamut / high dynamic range (HDR)

Apple is trying to establish leadership with the integration of workflows to support HDR editing. I suspect that their ultimate goal is proper HDR support for Apple TV 4K and the iPhone X. The state of HDR today is very confusing without any real standards. There’s DolbyVision and HDR10, an open standard. The latter leaves the actual implementation up to manufacturers, while Dolby licenses its technology with tight specs. The theoretical DolbyVision brightness standard is 10,000 nits (cd/m2), but their current target is only 4,000 nits. HDR10 caps at 1,000 nits. Current consumer TV sets run in the 300 to 500 nit range with none exceeding 1,000 nits. Finally, projected brightness in movie theaters is even lower.

To work in HDR within Final Cut Pro X, first set up the FCPX Library as wide instead of standard gamut. Then set the Project (sequence) to one of four standards: Rec 709 (standard dynamic range), Rec 2020, Rec 2020 PQ, or Rec 2020 HLG. The first Rec 2020 mode simply preserves the full dynamic range of log-encoded camera files when FCPX applies its LUTs. The PQ and HLG options are designed for DolbyVision and/or HDR10 mastering. HDR tools are provided to go between color spaces, such as mastering in Rec 2020 PQ and delivering in Rec 709 (consult Apple’s workflow document). However, it is only in the Rec 2020 PQ color space that the FCPX scope will display in nits, rather than IRE. When set to nits, the scale is 0 to 10,000 nits instead of 0 to 120 IRE.

To edit in one of these wide gamut color spaces, set your preferences to display HDR in raw values. Then Final Cut interacts with the color profile of the monitor through macOS to effectively dim the viewer image for this new color space. However, this technique is not applied to the filmstrips and thumbnail images in the browser, which will appear with blown out levels unless you manually override the colorspace setting for each clip. If your footage was shot with camera raw or log-encoding, using a RED, ARRI or similar camera, then you are ready to work in HDR today.

It’s critical to note that no current computer display or consumer flat panel will give you an accurate HDR image to grade by. This includes the new iMac Pro screens. You will need the proper AJA i/o hardware and a calibrated HDR display to see a proper HDR image. Even then, it’s still a question of which HDR levels you are trying to master to. For example, if you are using the scope in FCPX with a brightness level up to 10,000 nits, but your target display can only achieve 1,000 nits, then what good is the reading on the scope? We are still early in the HDR process, but I’m concerned that FCPX 10.4 will give users a false impression of what it really takes to do HDR properly.

HEVC / H.265

You can now import iMovie for iOS projects into FCPX 10.4.  Support for the H.265 (HEVC) codec has been added with this release, but you’ll need to be on High Sierra. If you shot video with an iPhone X and started organizing it in iMovie on the phone, then that video may have used the H.265 codec. Now you can bring that into FCPX to continue the job.

Going the other way will require Compressor encoding. HEVC is also the required format to send HDR material to the web. Apple is late to the game in H.265 support, as Sorenson and Adobe users have been able to do that for a while. I tested H.265 encoding of short clips in Compressor on my mid-2014 Retina MacBook Pro and it was extremely slow. There was no issue with H.264 encoding. The same H.265 test in Adobe Media Encoder – even when it was uprezzing a 1080p file to 4K – was significantly faster than Compressor.

Final thoughts

For current users. When you update to Final Cut Pro X 10.4, please remember that it will update each FCPX library file that you open afterwards. Although this has generally been harmless for most users, it’s best to follow some precautions. Zip your 10.3 (or earlier) version of the application and move that .zip file out of the applications folder before you update. Archive all of your existing Final Cut libraries. This way you can find your way back, in case of some type of failure.

Final Cut Pro X 10.4 is a solid upgrade that will have loyal FCPX users applauding. Overall, these new tools are useful and, as before, FCPX is a very fluid, enjoyable editing application. It slices through 4K content better than any other NLE on the Mac platform. If you like its editing paradigm, then nothing else comes close.

Unfortunately, Apple didn’t squash some long-standing bugs. For example, numerous users online are still complaining about the issue where browser text intermittently disappears. I do feel that there were missed opportunities. The functionality of audio lanes – a feature introduced in 10.3 as a way to get closer to track-style audio mixing – hasn’t been expanded. The hope for an enhanced, roles-based audio mixer has once again gone unanswered. On the other hand, the built-in audio plug-ins have been updated to those used by Logic Pro X and there’s a clean path to send your audio to Logic if you want to mix there.

I definitely welcome these updates. The new color tools make it a more powerful application to use for color grading, so I’m happy to see that Apple has been listening. Now, I hope that we’ll see some of the other needs addressed before another year passes us by.

©2017, 2018 Oliver Peters

CrumplePop and FxFactory

If you edit with Final Cut Pro – either the classic and/or new version – then you are familiar with two of its long-running plug-in developers. Namely, FxFactory (Noise Industries) and CrumplePop. Last year the two companies joined forced to bring the first audio plug-ins to the FxFactory plug-in platform. CrumplePop has since expanded its offerings through FxFactory to include a total of six audio and video products. These are AudioDenoise, EchoRemover, VideoDenoise, AutoWhiteBalance, EasyTracker, and BetterStabilizer.

Like much of the eclectic mix of products curated through FxFactory, the CrumplePop effects work on a mix of Apple and Adobe products (macOS only). You’ll have to check the info for each specific plug-in to make sure it works with your application needs. These are listed on the FxFactory site, however, this list isn’t always complete. For example, an effect that is listed for Premiere Pro may also work in After Effects or Audition (in the case of audio). While most are cross-application compatible, the EasyTracker effect only works in Final Cut Pro X. On the other hand, the audio filters work in the editing applications, but also Audition, Logic Pro X, and even GarageBand. As with all of the FxFactory effects, you can download a trial through the FxFactory application and see for yourself, whether or not to buy.

I’ve tested several of these effects and they are simple to apply and adjust. The controls are minimal, but simplicity doesn’t mean lack of power. Naturally, whenever you compare any given effect or filter from company A versus company B, you can never definitively say which is the best one. Some of these functions, like stabilization, are also available within the host application itself. Ultimately the best results are often dependent on the individual clip. In other words, results will be better with one tool or the other, depending on the challenges presented in any given clip. Regardless, the tools are easy to use and usually provide good results.

In my testing, a couple of the CrumplePop filters proved very useful to me. EchoRemover is a solid, go-to, “fix it” filter for location and studio interviews, voice overs, and other types of dialogue. Often those recordings have a touch of “boominess” to the sound, because of the room ambience. EchoRemover did the trick on my trouble clip. The default setting was a bit heavy-handed, but after a few tweaks, I had the clean track I was looking for.

EasyStabilizer is designed to tame shaky and handheld camera footage. There are several starting parameters to choose from, such as “handheld walking”, which determine the analysis to be done on the clip. One test shot had the camera operator with a DSLR moving around a group of people at a construction site in a semi-circle, which is a tough shot to stabilize. Comparing the results to the built-in tools didn’t leave any clear winner in my mind. Both results were good, but not without some, subtle motion artifacts.

I also tested EasyTracker, which is designed for only Final Cut Pro X. I presume that’s because Premiere Pro and After Effects already both offer good tracking. Or maybe there’s something in the apps that makes this effect harder to develop. In any case, EasyTracker gives you two methods: point and planar. Point tracking is ideal for when you want to pin an object to something that moves in the frame. Planar is designed for tracking flat objects, like inserting a screen into phone or monitor. When 3D is enabled, the pinned object will scale in size as the tracked object gets larger in the frame. UPDATE: I had posted earlier that the foreground video seemed to only work with static images, like graphic logos, but that was incorrect. The good folks at CrumplePop pointed me to one of their tutorials. The trick is that you first have to make a compound clip of the foreground clip and then it works fine with a moving foreground and background image.

Like other FxFactory effects, you only buy the filter you want, without a huge investment in a large plug-in package, where many of the options might go unused. It’s nice to see FxFactory add audio filters, which expands its versatility and usefulness within the greater Final Cut Pro X (and Premiere Pro) ecosystem.

©2017 Oliver Peters

The wait is over – FCP X 10.3

df3116_fcpx1003_1_smAmidst the hoopla on Oct. 27th, when Apple introduced the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, the ProApps team also released updates to Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor. This was great news for fans, since Final Cut got a prime showcase slot in the event’s main stage presentation. Despite the point numbering, the bump from 10.2 to 10.3 is a full version change, just like in macOS, where 10.11 (El Capitan) to 10.12 (Sierra) is also a new version. This makes FCP X 10.3 the fourth iteration in the FCP X line and the eleventh under the Final Cut Pro brand. I’m a bit surprised that Apple didn’t drop the “X” from the name, though, seeing as it’s done that with macOS itself. And speaking of operating systems, this release requires 10.11.4 (El Capitan) or higher (Sierra).

If you already purchased the application in the past, then this update will be a free upgrade for you. There are numerous enhancements, but three features stand out among the changes: the new interface, the expanded use of roles for mixing, and support for a wider color gamut.

A new look for the user interface

The new user interface is darker and flatter. Although for my taste, it’s a bit too dark without any brightness sliders to customize the appearance. The dimensional style is gone, putting Final Cut Pro X in line with the aesthetics of iMovie and other Apple applications. Final Cut Pro X was already out of step with design trends at the time it was first released. Reskinning the application with this new appearance brings it in line with the rest of the design industry.

The engineers have added workspaces and rearranged where certain controls are, though generally, panels are in the same places as before. Workspaces can be customized, but not nearly to the level of Adobe’s Premiere Pro CC. The most welcomed of these changes is that the inspector pane can be toggled to full height when needed. In reality, the inspector height isn’t changed. It’s the width of the timeline that changes and toggles between covering and revealing the full inspector panel.

There are other minor changes throughout 10.3, which make it a much better application. For example, if you like to work with a source/record, 2-up viewer display, then 10.3 now allows you to play a source clip from inside the event viewer.

Magnetic Timeline 2 and the expansion of roles

df3116_fcpx1003_2Apple did a lot of work to rejigger the way the timeline works and to expand the functionality of roles. It’s even being marketed as Magnetic Timeline 2. Up until now, the use of roles in Final Cut has been optional. With 10.3, it’s become the primary way to mix and organize connected clips within the timeline. Apple has resisted adding a true mixing panel, instead substituting the concept of audio lanes.

Let’s say that you assign the roles of dialogue, music or effects to your timeline audio clips. The timeline index panel lets you organize these clips into groups according to their assigned roles, which Apple calls audio lanes. If you click “show audio lanes”, the various connected clips rearrange vertical position in the timeline window to be grouped into their corresponding lanes, based on roles. Now you have three lanes of grouped clips: dialogue, effects, music. You can change timeline focus to individual roles – such as only dialogue – which will minimize the size of all the other roles (clips) in the window. These groups or lanes can also be soloed, so you just hear dialogue without the rest, for example.

There is no submix bus to globally control or filter groups of clips, like you have in Premiere Pro or most digital audio applications. The solution in FCP X 10.3 is to select all clips of the same role and create a compound clip. (Other NLEs refer to this as “nesting”.) By doing so, all of the dialogue, effects and music clips appear on the timeline as only three compound clips – one for each role. You can then apply audio filters or adjust the overall level of that role by applying them to the compound clip.

Unfortunately, if you have to go back and make adjustments to an individual clip, you’ll have to open up the compound clip in its own timeline. When you do that, you lose the context of the other clips. For example, tweaking a sound effect clip inside its compound clip, means that you would only hear the other surrounding effect clips, without dialogue and music or seeing the video. In addition, you won’t hear the result of filters or volume changes made at the top level of that compound clip. Nevertheless, it’s not as complex as it sounds and this is a viable solution, given the design approach Apple engineers have taken.

df3116_fcpx1003_3It does surprise me that they ended up with this solution, because it’s a very modal way of operating. This would seem to be an anathema to the intent of much of the rest of FCP X’s design. One has to wonder whether or not they’ve become boxed in my their own architecture. Naturally others will counter that this process is simplified due to the lack of track patching and submix matrices.

Wide color

The industry at large is embracing color standards that enable displays to reproduce more of the color spectrum, which the human eye can see. An under-the-hood change with FCP X is the embrace of wide gamut color. I think that calling it “wide color” dumbs down the actual standards, but I guess Apple wants to keep things in plain language. In any case, the interface is pretty clear on the actual specs.

Libraries can be set up for “standard color” (Rec. 601 for SD and Rec. 709 for HD) or “wide color” (Rec. 2020). The Projects (sequences) that you create within a Library can be either, as long as the Library was initially set up for wide gamut. You can also change the setting for a Project after the fact. Newer cameras that record in raw or log color space, like RED or ARRI models, are perfectly compatible with wide color (Rec. 2020) delivery, thanks to post-production color grading techniques. That is where this change comes into play.

For the most part you won’t see much difference in normal work, unless you really crank up the saturation. If you do this in the wide color gamut mode, you can get pretty extreme and the scopes will display an acceptable signal. However, if you then switch the Project setting to standard color, the high chroma areas will change to a somewhat duller appearance in the viewer and the scopes will show signal clipping. Most current television display systems don’t display wide gamut color, yet, so it’s not something most users need to worry about today. This is Apple’s way of future-proofing Final Cut and to pass the cleanest possible signal through the system.

A few more things

df3116_fcpx1003_4Numerous other useful tools were added in this version. For example, Flow – a morphing dissolve – for use in bridging jump cuts. Unlike Avid’s or Adobe’s variations, this transition works in real-time without analysis or rendering. This is because it morphs between two still frames. Each company’s approach has a slightly different appearance, but Flow definitely looks like an effect that will get a lot of use – especially with interview-driven productions. Other timeline enhancements include the ability to easily add and toggle audio fades. There’s simplified top and tail trimming. Now you can remove attributes and you can roll (trim) between adjacent, connected clips. Finally – a biggie for shared storage users – FCP X can now work with NAS systems that use the SMB protocol.

Working with it for over a week at the time I post this, the application has been quite stable, even on a production with over 2,000 4K clips. I wouldn’t recommend upgrading if you are in the middle of a production. The upgraded Libraries I tested did exhibit some flakiness, which weren’t there in freshly created Libraries. There’s also a technique to keep both 10.2 and 10.3 active on the same computer. Definitely trash your preferences before diving in.

So far, the plug-ins and Motion templates still work, but you’ll definitely need to check whether these vendors have issued updates designed for this release. This also goes for the third-party apps, like those from Intelligent Assistance, because 10.3 adds a new version of FCPXML. Both Intelligent Assistance and Blackmagic Design issued updates (for Resolve and Desktop Video) by the next day.

There are a few user interface bugs, but no show-stoppers. For instance, the application doesn’t appear to hold its last state upon close, especially when more than one Library is open. When you open it again the next time, the wrong Library may be selected or the wrong Project loaded in the timeline. It occasionally loses focus on the pane selected. This is an old bug that was there in previous versions. You are working in the timeline and all of a sudden nothing happens, because the application “forgot” which pane it’s supposed to have focus on. Clicking command-1 seems to fix this. Lastly, the audio meters window doesn’t work properly. If you resize it to be slimmer, the next time you launch FCP X, the meters panel is large again. That’s even if you updated the workspace with this smaller width. And then sometimes they don’t display audio until you close and reopen the audio meters window.

In this round of testing, I’ve had to move around Libraries with external media to different storage volumes. This requires media relinking. While it was ultimately successful, the time needed to relink was considerably longer than doing this same task in other NLEs.

My test units are all connected to Blackmagic Design i/o hardware, which seems to retard performance a bit. With a/v output turned off within the FCP X interface, clips play right away without stuttering when I hit the spacebar. With the a/v output on, I randomly get stuttering on clips when they start to play. It’s only a minor nuisance, so I just turn it off until I need to see the image on an external monitor. I’ve been told that AJA hardware performs better with FCP X, but I haven’t had a chance to test this myself. In any case, I don’t see this issue when running the same media through Premiere Pro on the exact same computer, storage and i/o hardware.

Final Cut Pro X 10.3 will definitely please most of its fans. There’s a lot of substance and improvement to be appreciated. It also feels like it’s performing better, but I haven’t had enough time with a real project yet to fully test that. Of course, the users who probe a bit deeper will point to plenty of items that are still missing (and available in products like Premiere Pro), such as better media relinking, more versatile replace edit functions and batch exporting.

For editors who’ve only given it a cursory look in the past or were swayed by the negative social media and press over the past five years, this would be the version to re-evaluate. Every new or improved item is targeted at the professional editor. Maybe it’s changed enough to dive in. On the other hand, if you’re an editor who’s given FCP X a fair and educated assessment and just not found it to your liking or suitable for your needs, then I doubt 10.3 will temp you. Regardless, this gives fans some reassurance about Apple’s commitment to professional users of their software – at least for another five years.

If you have the time, there are plenty of great tips here at the virtual Final Cut User Group.

The new Final Cut Pro X 10.3 user manual can be found here.

Click here for additional links highlighting features in this update.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2016 Oliver Peters

Cold In July

df_cij_2_smJim Mickle started his career as a freelance editor in New York, working on commercials and corporate videos, like so many others. Bitten by the filmmaking bug, Mickle has gone on to successfully direct four indie feature films, including his latest, Cold in July. Like his previous film, We Are What We Are, both films had a successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Cold In July, which is based on a novel by Joe R. Lansdale, is a noir crime drama set in 1980s East Texas. It stars Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Sam Shepard (Out of the Furnace, Killing Them Softly) and Don Johnson (Django Unchained, Miami Vice). Awakened in the middle of the night, small town family man Richard Dane (Hall) kills a burglar in his house. Dane soon fears for his family’s safety when the burglar’s ex-con father, Ben (Shepard), comes to town, bent on revenge. However, the story takes a twist into a world of corruption and violence. Add Jim Bob (Johnson) to this mix, as a pig-farming, private eye, and you have an interesting trio of characters.

According to Jim Mickle, Cold In July was on a fast-track schedule. The script was optioned in 2007, but production didn’t start until 2013. This included eight weeks of pre-production beginning in May and principal photography starting in July (for five weeks) with a wrap in September. The picture was “locked” shortly after Thanksgiving. Along with Mickle, John Paul Hortsmann (Killing Them Softly) shared editing duties.

df_cij_1_smI asked Mickle how it was to work with another editor. He explained, “I edited my last three films by myself, but with this schedule, post was wedged between promoting We Are What We Are and the Sundance deadline. I really didn’t have time to walk away from it and view it with fresh eyes. I decided to bring John Paul on board to help. This was the first time I’ve worked with another editor. John Paul was cutting while I was shooting and edited the initial assembly, which was finished about a week before the Sundance submission deadline. I got involved in the edit about mid-October. At that point, we went back to tighten and smooth out the film. We would each work on scenes and then switch and take a pass at each other’s work.”

df_cij_4_smMickle continued, “The version that we submitted to Sundance was two-and-a-half hours long. John Paul and I spent about three weeks polishing and were ready to get feedback from the outside. We held a screening for 20 to 25 people and afterwards asked questions about whether the plot points were coherent to them. It’s always good for me, as the director, to see the film with an audience. You get to see it fresh – with new eyes – and that helps you to trim and condense sections of the film. For example, in the early versions of the script, it generally felt like the middle section of the film lost tension. So, we had added a sub-plot element into the script to build up the mystery. This was a car of agents tailing our hero that we could always reuse, as needed. When we held the screening, it felt like that stuff was completely unnecessary and simply put on top of the rest of the film. The next day we sliced it all out, which cut 10 minutes out of the film. Then it finally felt like everything clicked.”

df_cij_3_smThe director-editor relationship always presents an interesting dynamic, since the editor can be objective in cutting out material that may have cost the director a lot of time and effort on set to capture. Normally, the editor has no emotional investment in production of the footage. So, how did Jim Mickle as the editor, treat his own work as the director? Mickle answered, “As an editor, I’m more ruthless on myself as the director. John Paul was less quick to give up on scenes than I. There are things I didn’t think twice about losing if they didn’t work, but he’d stay late to fix things and often have a solution the next day. I shoot with plenty of coverage these days, so I’ll build a scene and then rework it. I love the edit. It’s the first time you really feel comfortable and can craft the story. On the set, things happen so quickly, that you always have to be reactive – working and thinking on your feet.”

df_cij_5_smAlthough Mickle had edited We Are What We Are with Adobe Premiere Pro, the decision was made to shift back to Apple Final Cut Pro 7 for the edit of Cold In July. Mickle explained, “As a freelance editor in New York, I was very comfortable with Final Cut, but I’m also an After Effects user. When doing a lot of visual effects, it really feels tedious to go back and forth between Final Cut and After Effects. The previous film was shot with RED cameras and I used a raw workflow in post, cutting natively with Premiere Pro. I really loved the experience – working with raw files and Dynamic Link between Premiere and After Effects. When we hired John Paul as the primary editor on the film, we opted to go back to Final Cut, because that is what he is most comfortable with. That would get the job done in the most expedient fashion, since he was handling the bulk of the editing.”

df_cij_6_sm“We shot with RED cameras again, but the footage was transcoded to ProRes for the edit. I did find the process to be frustrating, though, because I really like the fluidness of using the raw files in Premiere. I like the editing process to live and breath and not be delineated. Having access to the raw films, lets me tweak the color correction, which helps me to get an idea of how a scene is shaping up. I get the composer involved early, so we have a lot of the real music in place as a guide while we edit. This way, your cutting style – and the post process in general – are more interactive. In any case, the ProRes files were only used to get us to the locked cut. Our final DI was handled by Light Iron in New York and they conformed the film from the original RED files for a 2K finish.”

The final screening with mix, color correction and all visual effects occurred just before Sundance. There the producers struck a distribution deal with IFC Films. Cold In July started its domestic release in May of this year.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine/CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters