Final Cut Pro X: Is it really Pro?

I’m almost loathe to write anything up about Final Cut Pro X at this point. There’s been so much wailing and gnashing of teeth (and joking) about it, plus a couple of over overly rosy reviews, but I figure one more voice from a more centrist position can’t hurt. However, note that I’ve only played with it for a few days, and I may not have the weeks of beta experience that a couple of the other commentators have. Still, I think I’ve got a decent feel for the app, but feel free to correct me if I’ve got something wrong.

The Facts

It’s not perfect. There are a lot of complaints that are quite valid, and in fact may be total showstoppers for some pro workflows. On the other hand, there’s a lot of bitching and whining about learning something new just because it’s different. Let’s take a look, starting with the biggest buzzkills in my area of expertise: broadcast TV editing and finishing.

There’s no EDL/XML/OMF import/export.

True. For this alone, I can’t see how anyone in a professional TV editing workflow could adopt it at this point. If I can’t get my edit out to a colorist or to my audio mixer, I can’t get my show to air. Yes, there are tools in FCPx that allow for some color correction and audio mixing, but at least in broadcast TV, jobs tend to be more specialized, and you want to hand those critical tasks off to someone you trust with specialized tools who does just that for a living. Collaboration is critical.

However, we are told by Apple speaking through David Pogue that this will be coming back, in some capacity, “once Apple publishes its XML programming guidelines (API).” Apple may not write every export function themselves, but having programmatic access to it means that someone will.

At the moment, it seems you can’t assign audio to specific tracks either, but as this isn’t really useful until you can export it somewhere, I’ll leave that one alone for now. We are also told that this will be coming back to FCPx in an update.

There’s limited support for existing video output cards.

True. At the moment, AJA has limited support for FCPx with their KONA cards, and I’m not aware of any other cards that currently work with it. Apple is said to be working with the card manufaturers on driver support, and good thing too, because being able to monitor on a color-accurate broadcast display is critical.

Of course, most broadcast displays are LCDs these days, so perhaps the type of output is less critical than it used to be, assuming your display is capable of reproducing an accurate broadcast gamut and is properly calibrated. I’m certain an Apple LED Cinema Display, properly calibrated, could be coaxed into this role. I wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes a popular option.

Even if you’re viewing on an LCD and you don’t need to output to tape (more on that momentarily), many professionals still want a video output so they can see the image properties on the video ‘scopes of their choice. FCPx includes what looks like much improved software scopes over the ones in FCP7, but I suspect that no matter how good they get, some greybeard editors are just never going to trust them — for whatever reason, rational or no.

I can’t output my sequence to tape.

True, but this is the future. Several networks are starting to go to tapeless delivery already, and workflows are heading in that direction. While tape still exists, you can output a QuickTime file and use another app (FCP7, or a small tool from AJA or Blackmagic Design) to do the actual edit to tape.

Perhaps this feels like an extra step, but I’ve been creating QuickTimes before output for so long, to get around FCP’s flakey Edit to Tape function, that it feels perfectly natural to me.

It doesn’t import old FCP projects.

True. Something that most people complaining about this don’t seem to have thought through, though, is how would the import work? Think about the differences in the way the timelines in the two apps work for a few minutes. Everything on an upper “track” in FCPx is not just floating around like it was is FCP7; now it’s linked to a clip below it. How would it determine which clips should be linked to each other? With that, and other changes, I suspect that there’s enough difference between the two formats that it would be very hard to create a satisfactory result in the translated version.

Plus, if you’re a seasoned professional, you’re not going to upgrade your project in the middle of editing anyway. It’s nearly always more pain than it’s worth.

There’s no multi-camera editing.

True. We’re told that this will be coming back soon. I don’t use it, but I can see how it would be critical to some workflows.

There’s no bins. I can’t organize my media the way that I want.

True-ish. There are folders, but FCPx uses a whole new way of dealing with clip metadata that, in my limited experience, looks to be much more powerful than bins. For me, it’s a lot like how I love Gmail’s way of tagging email, and am loathe to move back to a desktop-based email solution that only has folders. In the same way, I think I’m really going to love tagging clips (and sub-sections of clips) with keywords and other metadata. Bins now feel like the past.

I can’t specify the scratch disk, or, I can’t save my project to a different drive.

True-ish. The project lives on the same drive as the media and the render files, just like an iMovie project. If you create the project and then add media, you can choose not to copy it to the same drive, thus keeping them separate, but the render files will still go to wherever the project file is.

This one perplexes me a bit, and seems like an odd holdover from the iMovie mentality. As a paranoid editor, I want to be able to keep my project on a separate drive, so if my media drive dies, I can re-capture and relink the media to my project file that was safe on a different drive. I suppose I can set up some sort of script to make a periodic copy of my project file to another drive for safe-keeping, but that seems like a small oversight.

Color, Soundtrack Pro, and DVD Studio Pro are dead.

Seems to be true. I understand that Apple probably didn’t want to be in the stand-alone color grading business, and Color never exactly worked right anyway. I suspect working on collapsing a good deal of Color’s functionality into FCPx is why they never bothered to make Color feel like a real Apple app — perhaps they knew they were going to fold it into FCP all along, so why bother? The round-trip to Color was a clumsy workflow, and nearly everything you could do with it can be done in your FCPx timeline, so good riddance. Sure the new color tools are different, but… I’ll reserve judgement on them until I get a better chance to use them. The only thing I really hope they restore is support for control surfaces. Color grading with a mouse is a royal pain in the ass.

Soundtrack Pro was an odd duck. It seemed like a weird blend between Logic and Garageband. It was nice to have it bundled, but if you need the functionality, it would seem that Logic fits the bill. Makes sense for Apple to focus on one less audio app.

DVD Studio Pro — this is the one that I hear the largest outcry over, but the one that makes the most sense for Apple to drop. Steve Jobs has, for years, dropped hints that he (and by extension, Apple) thinks optical media is a dead end, and that internet delivery of video as files is the future. I tend to agree.

Of course, that doesn’t really explain why FCPx added a Blu-ray burning feature as an output option, but… okay, yeah, I don’t have an answer for that one.

It’s just iMovie Pro. It’s a toy. I can’t edit with this thing.

False. It may, in code, have more DNA in common with iMovie than FCP, but even just playing with it for the small amount of time I have, I can tell there’s a lot of thought that’s gone into this for professionals. Obviously, it’s a new 1.0 as opposed to the 10.0 they’re calling it, and it has some rough edges, but it’s also incredibly promising. There’s a lot to get used to for entrenched editors, but within an hour, I was editing pretty quickly on it. It’s not a toy, and it’s not impossible for a pro to use.

There is a point here where I disagree with Apple’s path, which is the immediate discontinuation of Final Cut Studio 3. As I mentioned, FCPx is really a new 1.0 app, and with all of the complaints above, is obviously not yet ready to be used in a lot of professional workflows. I have confidence it will get there, but for the moment, FCP7 is still the answer for a lot of people. If you already owned it, it still works fine (well… as fine as it ever did), and you can get your work done, but what if you need to ramp up and add a few more seats of FCP7 right now? You can’t, unless you buy some used copies or resort to outright piracy.

I wish that Apple would have left FCP7 on the market for some sort of transition period, but I get the feeling that this is the equivalent of Cortez burning his ships when he reached the New World: Apple wants their editors well motivated to move to the new shiny.

The Gist

A lot is still unclear, but thanks to Pogue’s FAQ, we have a decent idea of what things will be “fixed” and which things are consciously being left behind. It’s still unclear to me, in my frequent role as Online Editor, how finishing will work in this new system, but perhaps with better mixed format support and better format conversions through Compressor, there will be less to clean up. Time will tell.

FCPx may not be ready for prime time, but its differences promise impressive advances in editing workflow once the kinks get straightened out. In the meantime, if FCP7 works for you right now, there’s no reason to stop using it. Apple may have mis-stepped by not overlapping the two for a short time at least, but hopefully “burning the ships” works on Apple’s side of the equation as well, and more pressure from editors will lead to faster updates with the features that are truly needed to make the Pro designation a valid one.

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