ProRes 422, an Open-Format Timeline and Color Push this Package to a New Level

No doubt about it: Apple certainly stole the limelight at this year’s NAB with its greatly anticipated announcement of Final Cut Studio 2. The latest pro video application suite includes substantial upgrades of its central programs: Final Cut Pro 6, Motion 3, Soundtrack Pro 2 and Compressor 3 are the standouts. But new additions, such as a powerful new color-grading program and codec, bring the suite to life.
Inside FCS 2
Final Cut Pro 6, the main editing application at the heart of the collection is, at first glance, little changed from the previous version. Upon closer inspection, however, there’s plenty new here. In fact, there are two major features that alone are worth the price of admission.
The first is an open-format timeline. In previous versions of Final Cut Pro, dealing with video from mixed source formats required various capture and conversion strategies, most of them time-consuming and somewhat experimental, to achieve optimal results. With FCP6, these problems are largely solved. Now, when you drop your first video edit into a new sequence, it automatically adjusts its setting to natively match the clip. All subsequent clips, regardless of format, will play back on the timeline without rendering or conversion. You can mix and match formats from DV through uncompressed HD, regardless of aspect ratio or frame rate. This will save you a lot of time and lead to a more creative, uninterrupted workflow.
The second major new feature, ProRes 422, is already the most talked about new technology in Final Cut Pro, and I’m guessing that discussion will continue for some time. In a nutshell, ProRes 422 is essentially a 1920 x 1080, 10-bit, 4:2:2 codec with a high degree of bandwidth efficiency. It’s designed to be a post-production format, providing high-quality HD at data rates comparable with high-quality SD and with visually imperceptible generation loss. It has two usable bit rates for HD capture: the "normal" quality runs at 145 Mbps, slightly higher than HDCAM’s 140 Mbps; the "high" quality runs at 220 Mbps, approaching uncompressed SD data rates for the large-scale HD user.
There’s also an option for half-resolution playback in the timeline, allowing for more streams and effects in real time. While the upper end of this data rate will push pre-Intel Macs and older drives and arrays to their limits, the Intel Macs, particularly the beefier Mac Pros, should not have a problem. However, the higher data rates will still need a serious storage solution. There are also some hardware assists coming from AJA, BlackMagic and probably others, which we’ll be looking at soon.
Amazing Color
Apple bought Silicon Color in 2006, including its Final Touch color grading application. Final Touch had become a serious alternative to very pricey da Vinci color correction sessions. But the Final Touch software still costs from $995 to $25,000, depending on format. Many were expecting Apple to offer the application as a stand-alone (like Shake and Logic Pro). When Apple announced that its newly renamed Color 1.0 would be bundled with the Final Cut Studio 2 release, it felt like a windfall. To say that Color is robust is an understatement. Unless you’ve worked on a da Vinci or Final Touch, you might not fully appreciate what you get here. This is a real color timing/grading/correction system that, in the right hands, can have an enormous impact on the look of a project. If you’re new to color grading, take the time to really study this program before going overboard. Color is an art not to be taken lightly.
Color consists of a series of "rooms" or separate screens accessible by tabs. The "Setup" room contains all project settings. The "Primary In" room is used to perform global adjustments to clips or sequences. The "Secondaries" room lets you isolate and address discrete parts of an image. The "Color FX" room is for applying filters and effects. The "Primary Out" room is where you make final global adjustments on top of the specific tweaks you made in other rooms. There are also rooms for geometry adjustments, still stores and final rendering.
Motion 3
Even though it lacked some features found in other motion graphics programs, Motion has become well liked because of its intuitive workflow and real-time performance. In Motion 3, these workflow characteristics have been expanded into 3D space and many new features have been added. Drag-and-drop camera behaviors and vector-based paint tools offer some powerful, fast creative tools that combine nicely. For instance, you can create brushes with particles, video or pictures. The new match-moving tool lets you match the motion of an image or effect to any other. There are new audio behaviors that cause animations to respond to changes in audio volume and pitch. There’s also a library of over 1,500 new design and content elements.
Soundtrack Pro 2
The new version of Soundtrack Pro starts with an improved interface. The previous version had separate windows for multitrack editing and waveform editing, which have been combined in Soundtrack Pro 2. The new version also now does all waveform editing non-destructively. There’s a spectrum view editing feature that means you can now edit specific frequencies without affecting nearby or surrounding frequencies. You can knock out unwanted noises without blowing away other simultaneous frequencies above or below. Rounding out the new features are an improved display for spotting, advanced take management tool, a conforming tool to sync to video track changes, new stereo and surround mixing tools and a new effects library with over 5,000 sound effects.
Compressor 3
Compressor 3 has a new and greatly streamlined interface and simpler general workflow. The presets are improved and a wide range of formats is supported, including expanded support for mobile devices and HD DVD. There are dynamic filters that can be applied during pre-processing that include time-code overlays, audio and video fades and animated watermarks (from Motion).
DVD Studio Pro
Of all the programs included in the package, DVD Studio Pro 4.2 seems to have changed the least. Though the interface looks the same as before, the functionality has improved. The program now supports direct import of two-channel Soundtrack Pro audio file projects (STAP files) and includes native support for 720p at 23.98 fps (NTSC) and 720p at 25 fps (PAL). It doubles the frame rates to make these formats HD DVD compliant.
The Bottom Line
Final Cut Studio 2 is a strong upgrade to what was already the most popular suite of professional video tools out there. It makes it possible for professionals to take projects all the way to completion with little or no compromise. I’m working with FCS2 on both a G5 dual 2.7 and a beefy new Intel with two 3 GHz dual-core Xeon processors. Some of the new features, like ProRes 422, are very processor hungry. Advanced users will want to get this package going on the most powerful Intel Macs they can get their hands on.
Minimum System Requirements:
G5 with a 1.25 GHz processor and 1 GB of RAM
2 GB of RAM needed for working with compressed HD or uncompressed SD
4 GB of RAM needed for working with uncompressed HD
The latest Intel Mac Pro or MacBook Pro with 8 GB of RAM and maximum hard drive storage is recommended for full performance