In Review: Final Cut Pro X: A First Look and First Impressions

Available only in the App Store for $299, Final Cut Pro X represents a major shift not only in how professional applications are marketed but indeed even in the price points of software geared to the professional market. Ah, there’s the rub. Final Cut Pro X forces us to ask, what kind of professional?

Any Apple presentation you attend begins with Apple’s version of history. I’ll give you my version. Final Cut Pro 1.0 was released at NAB 1999, having been purchased from Macromedia and quickly ported to Mac. I adopted it on day one (I’m looking at my FCP 1 original disk as I write) and grew along with the application. As FCP matured into an integrated suite of applications and the third-party hardware/software developers extended its capabilities, it nonetheless retained a central Apple characteristic: universality. One Mac or one Mac app could be used by anyone, from the most basic user to the most advanced. Through the use of inherent features in the suite or through third-party additions, that very same Final Cut could serve the hobbyist to create home videos as well as feature film editors to create Academy Award winners.

That universality is gone in the current version of Final Cut Pro X as released in June 2011.

Now, a few remarks before I begin. The bloggers, fellow journalists and fellow FCP experts have been reporting that this is only version one of a new application and that Apple intends to address many of the omissions that I will highlight. I do not doubt the words of these colleagues and friends. But I and you, my readers, are working with the software as it is today. I can only review on the basis of what I have, not on the basis of what others speculate will be. In the absence of an official technology roadmap from Apple, it’s ultimately speculative.

Unlike others who have posted helpful and detailed feature by feature articles, I did not have pre-release access to the software. I downloaded FCP X from the App Store on that fateful Tuesday and faced an almost immediate deadline for this first-look review. It is most gratifying that by the time of product release, there already are tutorials and in-depth articles to guide our transition into FCP X.

Downloading FCP X, Motion 5 and Compressor 4 from the App Store was a snap. Like all App Store downloads, the software is available for download on any Mac logged into your App Store account. Licensing seems to be another issue. Apple states that you may install unlimited copies of FCP X, Motion 5 and Compressor 4 for personal use. That implies that commercial users must purchase individual machine licenses, which would ostensibly require a separate App Store account for each machine. It also raises questions about deployment on computers not connected to the Internet.

Launching FCP X for the first time brought up a very troubling option: “Import iMovie Project.” I don’t work in iMovie. I don’t think I’ve ever opened the current version of iMovie. My projects are FCP projects. There is no way to open FCP 7 and earlier projects in FCP X. I have 12 years of FCP projects. Apple’s reason for this is the radical difference in architecture between pre-X and X. I can buy that. What Apple doesn’t tell you is that they have removed import/export functions from FCP X including AAF, OMF and XML. XML was rightly championed by Apple as the universal exchange format that allowed applications to communicate with each other. AAF and OMF exporting capability can now be obtained only via a $495 standalone application: Automatic Duck Pro Export FCP 5.0.

Much of Apple’s published and stated reasoning behind many of the changes and omissions in FCP X tends to be phrased as, “We found a large number of our users didn’t really use this…” But this takes me back to my speculation about why FCP was able to take the world by storm: it had something for everybody. My advanced amateur friend would never export an OMF for ProTools, but he would unknowingly be using XML whenever he round-tripped between FCP and Motion. I knew about XML; he knew he was using an integrated suite.

Apple did give us much of what we asked for. FCP X is a true 64-bit Cocoa application, built from the ground up. It imports H.264 files without waiting for the transcode to ProRes. It is multiprocessor-aware. It renders in the background, often so fast that you are unaware any rendering is occurring. And while rendering, that very same H.264 clip will play back without a hitch. In just a day or two of pushing the app, I have not gotten a single dreaded dropped frame warning. I did note some sluggishness in skimming a clip while an intensive render was taking place in the background.

We need to think differently when approaching the whole metaphor of FCP X. Imports are organized as Events and reside in Events folders. These may be placed on any drive you like and are determined at the point of import of the files. No global scratch disk preferences any more. This is very good. Those Events (i.e., your media) are available whenever the drive that contains them is mounted. Thus we no longer need to think in terms of having multiple projects open if we need to use media from different projects. All files are accessible. This creates issues to my way of thinking. Will the app bog down after months of editing and thousands of files? What about issues of confidentiality of potentially exposing eyes-only footage (or worse, competitors’ footage) to the nightmare of client-over-your-shoulder editing? What about exposure of too much material on workstations used by multiple editors?

Import functions allow media management right at the import level. Imported shots are subject to Media, People and Shot Detection. Audio Analysis looks for clicks, pops, empty channels and a variety of defects as you would have been able to analyze within Soundtrack Pro. All of the metadata present in the clip is parsed to organize by codec, frame rate, and content (audio, video or graphic). People Detection will organize clips by number of people in the shot and categorize the shots as close up, medium or wide shots. Likewise, Shot Detection will analyze scenes and do the same. If you don’t like those choices the application makes or wish to reorganize, you can easily create custom folders. Import options also include stabilization and color analysis. It is important to note that these operations take some extra time and are not immediate, but they are also non-destructive. If you do not analyze on import and wish to do so later, it is a simple command.

While I would not use the auto-analysis features, others will find them heaven-sent. I checked out FCP’s color analysis; in the several shots I tested, color was balanced and rather flat. That’s great. It gave me a good basis from which to grade. Could I have accomplished the same result without the auto analysis? Of course. So it wasn’t really a time saver, but if I were under a pressing deadline to post some Web video, I would absolutely use it.

I never used FCP’s stabilization feature, preferring either the third-party CoreMelt Lock & Load plug-in, Imagineer Systems mocha Pro or now Adobe After Effects CS 5.5‘s Warp Stabilizer.

Back to media import and organization. The Import dialog box allows selection of destination, naming event and, here the most important point, creating optimized media and creating proxies. This is the key to the ability of the AV Foundation Framework to read the native H.264, for example, while transcoding to ProRes 422 in the background. An alternative supported workflow is to work with native files and leave the Optimized Media and Proxy boxes unchecked. It is always possible at some later point to optimize that media, (e.g., transcode to ProRes 422).

But not everything is supported yet. XDCAM EX files as .mp4 or .mxf are not supported natively at this time. It is still necessary to use external Sony utilities and rewrap these files into .mov. But in an even more ironic twist, FCP X supports 4K editing but does not support native R3D files, which for the moment are the primary source of these 4K files. So it is still necessary to edit RED footage from the QT proxies.

I was unable to import DVCPRO HD P2 footage from a BPAV folder that I had copied to a drive more than three years ago, and I no longer have the original P2 card. FCP 7 would have ingested the footage via Log and Transfer.

In the FCP X import scheme, you can import from camera, supported files, iMovie project or iMovie Event Library. Importing from camera means any camera connected to host Mac. FireWire capture of HDV and DV is supported, but on a manual start/stop basis. Solid-state cards would be recognized either from camera or dedicated card reader. But FCP X would not recognize or import my P2 footage, which resided on hard drive rather than on P2 card in camera or reader.

FCP X excels in its use of metadata and customization of metadata. This is a feature for which we clamored, and Apple has delivered in a very elegant and customizable form. I was particularly impressed with range-based keywords, where it is possible to select only a portion of a clip and apply a tag to the selection range. Of course, multiple tags can be applied to the same clip, same segment or even different segments of the same clip.

Smart Collections allows categorization of media. The whole process is dynamic. As keywords and tags are added to a clip, that media would find its way into a Smart Collection. Likewise, editing the tag will move or remove the clip. But these are only references (to use old FCP speak), so no changes are made to the physical media.

FCP X employs the same interface for access to content libraries as was in Motion 4, iMovie, iTunes, iPhoto and Aperture. This makes for consistent UIs across the product range and thus easier use.

As noted above, support for tape import is limited to FireWire. And even then, there is no more log and transfer—merely start and stop the import, splitting clips later. There is no support for third-party capture cards. Those of us who use capture cards must capture media within the manufacturer’s capture utility and then import the resulting .mov files into FCP X. The lack of integrated third-party capture card and display support makes FCP X a non-starter for professionals requiring tape ingest/output and precision monitoring via calibrated external reference or broadcast monitor.

Another flaw in the import process is the lack of any log and transfer function. It is possible to skim footage and mark in/out points with the familiar keyboard shortcuts, “I” and “O”. Beyond that, however, there is no way to rename the clip, add metadata or alter any characteristics.

Next, creating a new project. The “project” term isn’t exactly as it was defined in earlier versions, but I guess nobody could think of a better word. Only one project may be active at a time, but all projects are visible and may be cut and pasted into other projects. So it is de facto our old timeline, but re-envisioned. In the Project Window, double-clicking a project opens the timeline, and clicking the project icon on the lower left portion of the screen returns to project view.

It is once files have been imported that much of the real fun begins, and the sheer power of FCP X is apparent. The default view is a filmstrip view, but list view may also be selected, and metadata to be displayed may be customized. In the filmstrip view, merely skimming across a clip (got to learn new FCP X speak, folks) displays content and plays audio. Audio waveform display is optional. Mark an in/out point with I or O, or create a range and adjust the yellow brackets. Then drag the clip to your project, use keyboard shortcuts, or use one of the three icons on the upper ribbon of the timeline.

Drag audio, video, graphics. Stack clips as you desire. It is very freeform. In fact, the whole metaphor is that of storytelling. Good. That’s what filmmaking is about. Too many layers and too confusing an on-screen view? Just create a Compound Clip and it all collapses. Double-click and the Compound Clip expands. It goes well beyond the concept of the nest or the pre-comp.

The Magnetic Timeline feature of this project window is a subject of great Apple hype but of mixed value. For a large number of users of all proficiencies and industries, it is so much easier to grab a clip or group of clips and move things around. No clip collisions. Other media gets out of the way and drops to lower or higher tracks. Gaps close up. Nothing is forgotten and sync is easier to maintain. For the majority of our work, it’s another gift of the gods.

But what if you’re cutting to send to an outside audio editor and need to keep specific tracks on specific layers for later mixing? What if you just want to move a group of clips somewhere on the timeline while making other adjustments and then drop them back? It is a little more cumbersome to turn off the magnetic features. One suggestion on the boards has been to change selection tools.

Let’s look at an additional under-the-hood feature. Apple maintains that correct color is maintained throughout the pipeline by ColorSync profiles, making for accurate on-screen color grading. Here again, I have to think differently. I was always taught and I always drum into my readers and my clients that video needs to be viewed on a properly calibrated external SDI or HDMI monitor. Computer screens are progressive, and the only way to view interlaced footage is via the external monitor. But now the hooks are taken away and video output is a kludge at best for those of us who have invested in and who wish to use external monitoring. I use devices from both Matrox and AJA at the moment. AJA immediately posted a white paper on the use of KONA cards with FCP X. Inasmuch as FCP X only supports a maximum of two monitors (I edit with two 24″ computer displays, plus a Flanders Scientific SDI monitor running from either the Matrox or KONA device), the KONA output needs to be directed to the Macintosh desktop. Then, within FCP X, designate the reference monitor to be the second monitor and direct the display (what we would have called the Viewer in pre-X) to that monitor. What a kludge.

But, back to color: whether or not the screen is properly displaying color, the color correction process differs. If you have pre-analyzed the clip, just a click applies the suggested correction. Or analyze before grading. Or not. Apple has replaced the traditional color wheel with color boards. It’s a little hard for me to get into my head since my color theory instruction taught me to envision color wheels. The color correction model also seems to be an RGB model rather than YUV. It is a very straightforward solution and with practice I am certain that anyone of any experience level can gain understanding of how the model works. You can apply multiple instances of the color correction effect and draw masks with on-screen controls. On-screen controls were high on my FCP X wishlist after I became became accustomed to After Effects’ UI. The masks can be keyframed. But there is no tracker. And without external hooks, there is no way to bring in external tracking information from a program like mocha Pro.

I like all of the Scope choices that FCP X presents. I would wish that they were monochrome rather than in color. My colorist friends have taught me that one should have as few visual distractions or contaminations as possible when grading.

And that brings me to another area of great concern. While the technologies of Apple Color may have been folded into FCP X, Color certainly was not. In fact, Color was summarily executed. There goes a whole small but influential market segment of professional colorists who could take advantage of a powerful gift from Apple with the purchase of Color and its free bundling into Final Cut Suite. That means masks are a poor emulation of true secondaries. The Color tracker, which definitely needed improvement, got the big needle. There are no external hooks in FCP X for control surfaces. Those users will stay with the most recent version of Final Cut Suite or more likely migrate. I see Blackmagic Design Da Vinci Resolve as a major beneficiary of this. But of course you can’t take advantage of grading in Resolve from FCP X because there is no EDL export (for Resolve for Mac 7) or XML (for Resolve 8).

Also gone is multi-cam. Apple carefully developed an elegant implementation of multi-cam editing in FCP. The elimination of multi-cam makes the current release of FCP X a non-starter to a segment of the pro market.

Effects are handled in a very creative way. Select an effect and, as long as a clip to which you would apply the effect is selected, just skim the effect. You can preview the effect on your clip. That’s the power of using all cores, all available RAM and OpenCL GPU processing.

Yet, it is in the effects area that I find among the greatest deficiencies of FCP X: the elimination of FxPlug support. I hope it comes back. Some people say it will. I will declare that it is back only when I actually see it in a future update. Personally, I love plug-ins. My color correction plug-in of choice when using FCP is Red Giant Magic Bullet Colorista II. The best all-around set of plug-ins you can buy is Boris Continuum Complete. Lock & Load does great stabilization. I could go on and on. True, there is a workaround that, as of these first days of FCP X, is being utilized from Noise Industries (FxFactory) and soon from GenArts. But these are generators and looks type of effects rather than the full range of options from FxPlugs.

Motion 5, which is beyond where I can go in just this first look at FCP X, supports FxPlug 2 architecture. This is FxPlug in 64-bit with additional APIs. It means that developers can re-code existing plug-ins and create very powerful effects for Motion 5. Getting those effects into FCP X, however, requires extending your right hand over your head to scratch your left elbow.

You cannot send a clip from FCP X to Motion 5. So, you must open the clip in Motion 5, apply effects, save the clip and then bring it back into FCP X. No round-tripping. FCP X and Motion interact in the creation and modification of templates. Select a template, title or effect in FCP X Effects Browser, right-click to select Send a Copy to Motion. That can then be modified in Motion 5, published in Motion 5 and it will appear in FCP X where you have specified it in the Motion publishing process. You can also create new templates from scratch in Motion 5 and send to FCP X.

Another wonderful feature for the DSLR or dual audio user is built in sync capabilities. FCP X matches waveforms quickly but unlike PluralEyes within FCP, it cannot create multi-clips. This feature seems to work quickly with one video clip and one secondary audio clip. It bogs down with multiple video and secondary audio clips in the same timeline.

Then there is audio. Gone is the audio mixer. Gone is Soundtrack Pro. Gone is support for audio control surfaces. Since we are now dealing with a true 64-bit app, AU plug-ins are supported with their full GUI, unlike the sliders in pre-X. Or just like they did in the euthanized Soundtrack Pro. STP’s 5.1 capabilities are integrated into FCP X with a graphical spatial designer to mix 5.1 tracks. We thus have powerful audio tools within FCP X but have lost the capabilities of a dedicated DAW app. This come at a time when Adobe has ported Audition to the Mac and included it in CS 5.5. In yet another of the many ironic twists, FCP X doesn’t even provide a Send To Logic Pro option for those who want to stay within the Apple ecosystem for audio mixing.

What ecosystem? We have seen a suite of integrated applications which begged for even greater integration mutated to three applications with minimal integration (I guess all Compressor needs is a Send To, which FCP X does have).

FCP X has significant value to a certain range of professionals, but not to all professionals. It handles metadata and organizes media effectively and in a way customizable to the needs of the user. It is blazingly fast. The ability to use at least some native codecs means the days of waiting for transcoding is over. Playback while rendering is seamless and, besides, most rendering takes place so quickly that the only way you even know you are rendering is the central control display in the middle of the screen.

Who Will Benefit From FCP X?
The greatest beneficiaries of FCP X will be the broad market: iMovie users looking for something more powerful, FC Express users moving up the sophistication ladder, small, creative Webcasters, podcasters, or news professionals who need to turn around a quick package. It is a boon to professionals engaged in that often-amorphous arena of New Media—YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo, etc. Other professional editors for whom FCP X may not be appropriate for some jobs can turn to FCP X for these types of tasks in which FCP X excels.

The broadcast professional, multi-user post facility, feature film or collaborative editor is simply left behind in the current iteration of Final Cut Pro X. Apple has exchanged the model of broadly based users for a narrow definition of users. The FCP installed base clamored for Apple to fix what was wrong and implement the multicore, cocoa-based, no-transcode features that Apple gave us. What we did not expect was a perceived abandonment of a segment of the professional market.

Final Cut Pro X calls upon us to think differently. And thinking differently is good for the creative juices. It might be about time for Apple to think differently. Instead of the wall of total secrecy, Cupertino owes its loyal user base a roadmap of ProApps development.

Final Cut Pro X
$299 via App Store Download

About doddle 16509 Articles
Doddlenews is the news division of the Digital Production Buzz, a leading online resource for filmmakers, covering news, reviews and tutorials for the video and film industry, along with movie and TV news, and podcasting.

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