Practical Thoughts on FCP X

There have been a lot of blogs, a lot of articles, and probably millions of tweets about the new Final Cut Pro X. This blog is my opinion on the whole thing, the release, the reaction and the software itself. I won’t cover absolutely everything, I haven’t had a chance to work with every aspect of the program yet. These are just my initial thoughts, to give a practical perspective and to try to understand where FCP X might fit in with my work.

But let me begin this blog with some context and a confession. The confession first; I love Apple products. They’re beautifully designed and made, and in my experience crash less and last longer than Windows machines, which is one of the things that drew me to them in the first place. Some context secondly; almost all of the work I’ve done in the past 18 months has been shot on cards rather than tape, and all but one of my clients use FCP 7. The other uses Avid Media Composer, which I also used before I went freelance. There has been a job on Adobe Premiere Pro, but only a couple of days. My preference has obviously always been for FCP 7, but I think it’s important to point out that I’ve used the alternatives and I just happen to enjoy using FCP more than the others. Most of what I cut is corporate, delivered on via the web, and cinematic wedding films, most often delivered on BluRay (for which I use Adobe’s Encore CS4 – anyone who follows me on Twitter will know I find it aggravatingly crash-inducing but does get the job done eventually). If I’m not a professional editor, I don’t know what I am, but I admit freely I’m not an editor of broadcast TV or feature films… Yet. I’m still young.

Now that that’s out of the way, onto the blog…

Apple are notorious as much for the hype surrounding their products as the products themselves. They love their keynote announcements, using excessive hyperbole in their marketing materials, and telling anyone who’ll listen how “awesome” absolutely everything that they do is. They are extremely secretive and careful to control the information that comes out about their products pre-release.

All the information most of us had about FCP X was either a write-up or a bootleg video of the Supermeet announcement at NAB. What Apple showed at the Supermeet raised more questions than answers. At the time I read many a post saying “what about tape”, “what about the other apps”, “what about “? And yet as soon as the release appeared on the App Store, my Twitter feed exploded with messages saying variations on “it’s here” and a link to the App Store, implying “buy it now”!

I won’t list the features that are and aren’t in the release, that’s been done elsewhere far far better and more comprehensively than I could do, you wouldn’t have to look hard to find one. But it does amaze me how quickly people jumped to buy the software without reading up about what’s in an what’s not in it’s current form. When people complain that the interface is iMovie-like it baffles me, since that’s exactly what Apple showed at the Supermeet. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I’ll get into later… But over the last few days I’ve seen many people getting refunds for it from Apple, and that surprises me because despite the fact that there are some issues (and I don’t mean to be-little them, they’re big issues for a lot of people) I’d be amazed if people couldn’t find £180/$300 worth of use for it…

Apple isn’t a software or hardware company exclusively, it’s an ecosystem company. They make software in order to sell hardware. They could have sold more copies of FCP 7 if it had been cross-platform, but then they wouldn’t have sold as many Mac Pros, iMacs and MacBook Pros. Apple wants to control the user experience, and if they haven’t made something work to a standard that they are happy with, it’s just not in the software. The FAQ that Apple just put out states that FCP7 import doesn’t work. That’s why it’s not in, ditto multicam for now, it doesn’t meet the Apple standard. Some things they’ll work on, get right, and put out as an update. Some things they won’t, and third parties will have to try to do if it’s possible.

Of course this is upsetting for people expecting (justifiably) that such things would be in the release. In my opinion Apple should have waited for another six months, got these things right and then put FCPX out, but that’s also not the Apple way. I remember iOS 1.0; no App Store, no Copy/Paste, no MMS… How did we cope? The original iPad was clearly lacking a camera for video calling, but it seems to me that nobody has yet made a tablet as good as iPad 1 except Apple with the iPad 2.

And so it may be for FCP X when the updates come, as is inevitable. I think it’ll be fascinating to see which features of FCP X appear in Premiere Pro CS 6 and Avid MC 6 (you know they will, and be declared as wonderful when they do). If I was a betting man, I’d say built-in audio syncing and range-based key-wording support at the very least.

But for now, we can only use the FCP X software as it is and judge it as such.

I want to address the interface first of all, since it is the first thing you see and it’s come in for a heck of a lot of criticism. Yes, it looks like iMovie, just as it did at the Supermeet demonstration. People have jumped on this as proof that FCP X isn’t professional, but to me that’s rubbish. There’s no doubt that some people won’t like this interface, and to me there are several things about it that already annoy the heck out of me, but it’s not what decides if FCP X is professional or not, it’s how many people can use it to make a living. The interface looks like iMovie for a simple reason, and that is that Apple have decided to re-imagine the NLE layout. If the market decides that it doesn’t like the iMovie-like interface, it’ll go away, I promise. I personally don’t have a problem with only having one monitor window rather than two. Really we’re only ever looking at one at a time anyway, aren’t we? But the real changes in the interface are the (former) “Bin” organisation, now “Events” and “Smart Collections”, and what we used to call a Timeline, now a Project. The Bin re-naming doesn’t bother me, but why Timelines can’t still be Timelines I don’t really understand.

Organising by Events and Smart Collections makes a whole lot of sense to me. The design of the interface is based around meta-data, being able to “tag” your clips either wholly or in part with keywords. The idea is, you go through your footage and mark it up so that you can find something later, a person, a shot-type, whatever you want to describe something as, you tag it, then you can find it more easily later. So goes the theory, and in my limited experience so far, it works really well and removes a lot of the guess-work and trying to remember which clip a certain shot was in and how far into that clip the shot might be. That really works for me. You spend a bit more time in the beginning of the project doing the tagging, but it makes editing the rest of the project easier and more efficient.

The timeline, (now a Project but let’s face it, we’re going to keep calling it a timeline when we talk about it) is a little different, and will take a bit of getting used to. Clips move around the timeline in a different way, and the relationships between clips now needs to be made explicit within the timeline rather than in the editors head. The audio for each clip is contained within one item on the timeline, so it looks a lot cleaner, and with the waveforms being displayed and dynamically adjusting (with visual feedback for when you’re getting into clipping) it’s great for simple audio editing. The Compound Clips make nesting really simple, and I have to agree with Apple that it’s much easier to keep everything in sync now. The in-line precision editor also makes seeing what media you have available much easier, though to me it’s just a more pleasing implementation of the “Trim” function. The audio monitors, still on the right hand side of the screen have been bulked up a bit and made much, much easier to see. A little thing, for sure, but it makes a difference.

But the real innovation of the magnetic timeline is what Apple call “Auditioning”. Simply put, you select several clips from your Event library, and “Create Audition”. You then drag the newly created single Audition item onto the timeline, and the timeline adjusts to the length of the active item within the audition. To toggle between them, you click on the Audition icon in the clip, then press left and right to go between shots. The timeline updates automatically, and plays with a couple of seconds pre-roll by default. It’s fantastically powerful and easy, but most of all, quick. It’s been nothing short of revelatory to be able to do that for me, I can see myself using it all the time.

The second area where I think FCP X has made a big step forward is with effects and plugins. Before you all yell at me that there aren’t any yet, I’m well aware that third party plugins aren’t here yet, but they’re coming, as was always inevitable. For now I’ve just got the built-in effects and that’s plenty to learn with… The great thing with FCP X is that when you’re looking through effects, it’s no longer a case of guessing what an effect might look like on your clip, dragging that effect on, deciding it’s wrong, having to delete it, putting another one on, etc, etc… Now you select a clip in the timeline and hover over the effect you’re thinking about, which has a convenient little thumbnail to give you a clue before you even start. The monitor updates with what the effect will look like on your clip. If you like it, drag it on or double-click on the thumbnail you’re hovering over. Simple… A similar thing happens with transitions and text effects, as you scrub over them in the browser, you see a preview in the monitor, though only using a couple of generic stills or text. Still way more helpful than the descriptions! Can anyone really tell what the text preset “Assembler” is going to look like without it?

It should also be noted that these title presets can also be opened up in Motion and modified to your heart’s content, but I haven’t had a chance to do that yet. A write-up on Motion will be a future blog!

But now we have to come to a couple of negatives sadly. The workflow is very insular. Final Cut Pro X is not made to integrate with anything else by default. There’s no XML in/out, OMF/AAF out is available via a plugin which runs as a separate program. There’s no playing out to anything except miniDV tape. There’s no broadcast monitoring for crying out loud! Projects auto-save constantly, which is nice enough until it goes wrong… More than once I’ve pressed the old “Command+S” shortcut only to hear a clunk sound from the program, as if I’m doing something so alien to it I might as well be asking it to take in footage from a Hi8 tape (bonus points if you find a way to do this, btw)… I don’t know how well it will work to send projects/event bins to someone who has the same raw footage. Supposedly you can, but since nobody uses FCP X yet, I’ve nobody to test it with. On a smallish screen (I’m currently looking at it on a 15″ laptop) everything starts getting a little cramped, if you have the Event Library, Timeline, Monitor, Inspector and Effects Browser all open at the same time, but it only takes a little management to free up some space. I wouldn’t like to look at it on an 11″ MacBook Air mind you (though if anyone wants to lend me one for a while to try it out, that’s fine too).

Another couple of minor gripes; I miss the old color corrector. I’m getting to grips with the new color board (new names for *everything* in this software) but as yet it doesn’t feel right to me, it’s a little more fiddly than it used to be. I also recognise that this will almost certainly be forthcoming very soon, but it would be great to have native RED support, native XDCAM support and of course multicam would be nice (though rare it was that I ever used it before).

There has been an epic amount of discussion about FCP X this week. Reactions have been absolutely fascinating. The first time I saw one of my producers after the release the first thing he said to me was “I hear the new Final Cut is rubbish”. Obviously I disagree and I think once he sees the potential contained within it for our workflow he’ll come around. The discussion of how “Pro” or not FCP X is has gotten old now though. It happens to be that in my case, for a very large amount of what I do, it’s 95% of the way there. So I imagine in six months time I’ll be using it on a regular basis, making my living with it. The FAQ Apple just put out suggests that XML export or at least some variant is coming at some point. Monitor support will come at some point (it just will, alright, feel free to complain until it arrives).

My experience thus far actually *using* FCP X has been great. The problems for me with it are largely reduced because I’m not dealing with tape at any point in the process and I don’t use multicam.. The biggest issues are the broadcast monitoring, XML out and the fact that my favourite plugins aren’t yet FCP X ready (but will be soon, so says the Twitter-verse). Once you have footage imported, the actual editing experience, putting clips next to each other on the timeline, that part of FCP X works fantastically for me so far. And maybe it’s because it’s still got that “new car smell” but dammit if it isn’t just a little more fun than usual.

I hope this blog post has given a more practical perspective than the simple bashing going on on Twitter. My initial reaction to FCP X was that it looks great, really exciting, lots of possibilities, but Apple have left out some really key things. I stick by that. On the day of release I said it was a bit like HD-DSLR cameras at the moment, not right for every job but brilliant for some, and I think that’s still true as well. Had anybody but Apple made this, or even if they’d just not called it Final Cut or iMovie, I think we’d all have a totally different reaction to it. As it is, my final comment is this;

I think I’ll be able to be more efficient and more creative with FCP X than FCP 7, and have more fun doing it to boot. Isn’t that what it’s all about?