Multi-camera, mixed-source editing on Apple Final Cut Pro and Avid Xpress Pro HD
Whether you are cutting together a reality show, sporting event or live
performance, multi-camera editing is a hot commodity these days. During
live events, where you don’t have the luxury of multiple takes,
multiple camera shoots can be your only chance to properly capture
what’s on stage. Take, for example, the recent MTV Video Music Awards
show. All Mobile Video (AMV), a leading event production company in the
East Coast, was hired to update the award show to high definition. To
capture the many elements constantly in motion, AMV’s president Erik
Duke used over a dozen HD cameras running simultaneously. "We were
using about 14 HD cameras on everything from cranes, dollies and
Steadicams," says Duke.
Yet with multiple cameras comes multiple post-production headaches – or
at least added expenses. "While it can be very efficient, multi-camera
editing on any nonlinear editing system has its own set of challenges,"
notes Dan Lawrence, a Los Angeles-based freelance editor who has cut
together everything from high-end music videos to feature films. Today,
Lawrence is a big fan of Final Cut Pro – especially now that it has
native multi-camera editing. "In the past, you had no choice: If you
wanted to edit multiple [video] channels, you had to edit on higher-end
Avid systems," he says. "Now the latest version [of Final Cut Pro]
gives you more options in the kind of productions you can do."
We decided to put Apple Final Cut Pro 5 and Avid Xpress Pro HD,
individually, through the multi-camera paces. In our tests – which
wouldn’t have been possible without Medea’s new FCR2X Fiber-Channel
RAID array – we found that both Final Cut Pro 5 and Xpress Pro HD are
pretty evenly matched, and both offer a variety of impressive
multi-camera editing features. The differences lie in the way each one
OLD IDEA, NEW TWIST
First, a quick trip down historical context lane. The demand for
multi-camera editing has been around for a long time, ever since the
first rookie soap opera director said, "Ready, camera one, take one – I
mean two! No..uh.. Three!" Multi-camera NLE systems started popping up
in the early 1990s. Lightworks created the first multi-camera NLE
system by using lower-resolution images to display multiple angles.
Avid immediately jumped into the fray, and the two fought it out in the
marketplace for several years. Avid got the upper hand by 1995, and
even won a Technical Emmy Award for its multi-camera editing system.
These systems continued to evolve in features (and list prices) to
today’s Avid Symphony Nitris, which can handle eight streams of
uncompressed SD or HD material at one time.
Naturally, the advance of low-cost NLE software brought with it the
demand for lower-cost multi-camera editing software. The first out of
the gates was UK -based United Media’s Multicam software, a plug-in for
Adobe Premiere that could handle up to four camera angles at one time.
Next Digital Heaven came up with a plug-in for Final Cut Pro. While
these packages brought multi-camera features to a broader audience,
they didn’t have the integrated flexibility of the multi-camera NLE
systems from Avid and Lightworks. Leitch joined those ranks a few years
ago when it added native multi-camera editing to VelocityQ and
Last year Avid migrated multi-camera editing features into its
software-based Xpress Pro system, giving users a maximum of four angles
of DV video to use on one timeline. The only problem with this
iteration of native multi-camera desktop editing was that the viewer
window wouldn’t update each stream; you’d only see the separate angles
when the timeline was stopped. Xpress Pro HD solves this by using a
Gang Follow Video function, so you can view up to four sources playing
back in sync with the main viewer. (Ironically, Pinnacle, soon to be
acquired by Avid, also released an NLE with native multi-camera editing
last year. It’s still too early to tell if, and for how long, Liquid
Edition 6 will peacefully coexist alongside its future step-sibling.)
Apple upped the ante at NAB by announcing version 5 of its HD NLE Final
Cut Pro, which now has the ability to simultaneously play back up to 16
video angles at one time, and up to 128 source clips per Group Clip.
While Avid Xpress Pro HD can ultimately link together more source clips
(according to Avid, the theoretical limit is somewhere around 624 clips
per group), Xpress Pro HD can only display four streams at one time.
Xpress Pro HD and Final Cut Pro 5 use nearly the same approach to
multi-camera workflow. In both programs, you start by digitizing your
footage and grouping multiple clips together before finally saving off
each group as a separate file. Final Cut Pro adds at least one extra
step to this process: Each digitized clip has to be numbered as a
specific angle before it can be grouped together. Also, in Final Cut
Pro, all grouped clips must be the same format, so you’ll need to
devote some extra time to recompressing media if your source material
is coming from different camera types.
Once you’ve created a group file, you bring the group file onto either
program’s timeline and start editing. Instead of the usual edit
controls, both programs let you select camera angles while playing back
the main window, either by using assigned keys on a keyboard or using a
mouse. On both the Xpress Pro HD and Final Cut Pro systems, this kind
of editing was extremely fast and easy to adjust. Made a mistake while
editing? No problem – just right-click on a media clip in either program,
and you can select a different clip from a pop-up menu. Because Final
Cut Pro can display more angles at once, you can also use your mouse to
select different angles in the Source window.
EASE OF USE VS. SCALABILITY
While both programs offer similar features, there are differences in
the way each one handles out of the box. Final Cut Pro offers
significant ease of use compared to the Avid Xpress system – it’s
amazingly fast to load, set up and begin editing. In fact, we were able
to get Final Cut Pro 5 up and running within about twenty minutes
(unlike Xpress Pro HD, which took much longer to configure). Final
Cut’s elegant interface makes it easy to apply effects, adjust audio
and select different cuts nearly at the same time. The icing on the
cake? Seeing up to 16 sources playing back at once, an impressive,
major benefit if your projects include more than four video sources.
For example, you could group non-synchronized clips together to quickly
cut a music video using multiple video sources.
Yet for all of its great features, Final Cut Pro 5 feels like an
island – a great place to do all your work, but a pain if you need to
work with other gear. Because nearly all of the software processing is
done by the Mac’s CPU, the performance of your multi-camera editing
system is ultimately constrained by the power under your Mac’s hood.
While comparatively much more expensive, Avid offers integrated systems
that provide the necessary NLE hardware kick. According to Apple,
you’ve got to first down-convert HD material to a different codec-such
as Apple’s Intermediate Codec – in order to edit multiple HD
clips in its multi-camera mode. Avid Xpress Pro HD lets you mix formats
within a multiclip view. Not so in Final Cut: You’ll need to
down-convert HD material or up-convert DV material if you plan to mix
Like Final Cut Pro, Avid Xpress Pro HD has its own set of quirks.
Xpress Pro HD is similar to nearly all Avid products-overly complex to
set up and maintain, with stringent hardware requirements that can
confound even the most experienced media geek. Frankly, I haven’t come
across an Avid NLE system in the past decade that didn’t require some
serious tech support time in order to get up to speed. In fact, this
test took a lot of quality time with Avid tech support.
Yet unlike Apple, Avid isn’t trying to be all things to all people
(from consumers to high-end post production houses). Xpress Pro HD is,
without question, a tool for professionals only. While not as elegant
and easy to use as Final Cut, Xpress Pro HD shares the same modular,
standardized interface that you’ll find on all Avid systems.
Consequently, you can easily match cameras using Xpress Pro’s excellent
Color Correction mode. In fact, this feature was a huge time saver for
us during production. While you can add a color-correction filter in
Final Cut Pro 5, you can’t see other reference clips to match camera
Then there is the upward migration path for your edited project. Thanks
to shared programming, you can easily move an Xpress Pro HD project to
a high-end Avid online suite for finishing, and use the same media if
necessary. Even if you’ll never have the budget to purchase one of
Avid’s higher-end NLE systems, chances are you have access to one. For
smaller post houses with low overhead, this is a major boon: You can do
your "homework" on your Xpress Pro system, and then do your online
finishing in the $800-per-hour Avid Unity suite down the road.
Xpress Pro HD’s ability to mix different formats will also save you
plenty of production time. Final Cut Pro 5 may get up and running
faster, but you still must conform all clips to the same format before
you can start working with its multicamera features-a huge time sump
when deadlines are tight. While there is no clear winner here, there is
a clear directive-go out and start editing, fast!
MY MULTICAM WHISLIST
Easy, painless multi-camera editing is evolving at a steady clip,
and Xpress Pro HD and Final Cut Pro 5 are leading the way. Other
options include Leitch VelocityHD, Pinnacle Liquid Edition 6, United
Media’s plug-in for Premiere Pro 1.5 and Macrosystem’s QuadCom plug-in.
The only way to find out which system works best for you is to take a
test drive. When you do, think about what other multi-camera features
you need, then beat a path to the respective development teams and let
Here’s what I’d like to see in future versions of Final Cut Pro and Xpress Pro HD:
Final Cut Pro external hardware acceleration.
Final Cut Pro remains a software-based system only, which is powered
by a CPU speed that has nearly hit the processing wall. Extra CPU
horsepower would let you edit an HD program with multiple angles
without having to recompress all footage to SD.
Better color matching in Final Cut Pro.
Color correction between cameras in the multicamera-editing mode is
trial by error at best. It would be better to have a new
color-correction filter designed specifically for multi-camera editing
that has the ability to compare images from other angles.
More viewable angles in Xpress Pro.
While 16 angles are fairly unusual in most production situations, six to eight angles in a live production is pretty standard.
The ability to sync by marker in both products.
In addition to synchronizing clips by in and out points, wouldn’t it
be great if you could group clips together by marker, so you could keep
in and out points separate?
Avid Xpress Pro HD is, without question, a tool for professionals
only. While not as elegant and easy to use as Final Cut, you can easily
and quickly match cameras using Xpress Pro’s excellent Color Correction
mode. In fact, the feature was a huge time saver for us during