Apple's Reinvented NLE Isn't Ready for Prime Time. But Is It a Better, Faster Way to Edit?

Still frustrated by the introduction of Final Cut Pro X? Baffled by the trackless timeline? Flummoxed by the lack of support for XML, EDLs and VTRs (not to mention OLEDs)? Irritated by the missing pro features? Evan Schechtman feels your pain. The founder of Outpost Digital and CTO of @Radical Media in New York doesn’t think FCPX is ready for prime time, either. But if the widely perceived failings of FCPX are making you consider abandoning Final Cut completely as an editorial platform, he has some advice: “Everybody just breathe. Just chill.”
Beyond an exterior that seems oddly unfinished, Schechtman says there’s a lot to like about FCPX. He acknowledges that new features like the magnetic timeline essentially demand that users devote time and energy to learning a new editing interface, but he doesn’t see why that’s a problem for editors who are experienced enough to remember a world where Final Cut Pro didn’t even exist. “The people who are really seasoned know that change is a constant,” Schechtman says. “I converted god-knows-how-many hundreds of Avid editors [to Final Cut Pro] kicking and screaming. I ran my business on Final Cut Pro and got beaten up for it. The thing that’s funny philosophically is that, despite all the original limitations of Final Cut Pro, people decided they had to live with it – and that dictated the next 10 years of workflow. People designed their workflow around those limitations. Everyone forgets that.”

Facing the Future

Apple has taken lumps for jettisoning features like EDL export and VTR controls from the new version of Final Cut. Schechtman sees that as an adaptation to today’s file-based workflows. “When was the last time you exported an EDL?” he asks. “EDLs mattered when the only metadata was reel name and timecode. The new editing metaphor is so rich with metadata that an EDL wouldn’t do it justice.”

FCPX is also missing XML support, but Schechtman notes that Apple has stated its intention to add it in the future. And what about videotape, anyway? Schechtman says you may as well leave those functions to the specialists. “Let the video-card manufacturers make an esoteric, crazy-looking product with every setting and dipswitch in the world,” he argues. “In our facility, we have two systems in the control room where all of our layback is done using a crummy-looking VTR app from AJA. That works for me.”

Instead, Final Cut Pro X is built on a foundation that reflects very contemporary trends in production and post. “When Final Cut Pro shipped, there was no high-definition for the masses, hard disk size was below 37.5 GB, there was no solid-state acquisition, no flash memory, and no such thing as shared storage, even in Avid land,” Schectman says. “FCPX is a reaction to what’s actually been going on and what our needs are today. The majority of what we shoot is solid state, not tape. I want a workflow based on that. 4K is prevalent, so I want a program that can handle 4K. The Canon 5D is an agent of change, just like DV was an agent of change. If you take 5D footage and drop it into Final Cut 7, you’re stifled. You have to learn Compressor and run batch encoding processes that double the size of the media so you can bring it in as ProRes. But if you’re using Final Cut X on a dual-core iMac, you can work on that footage natively. And it’s optimized for how we actually work today. I can put Final Cut Pro X on a machine that’s two or three years old and outpace Final Cut Pro 7 on a box that came out today. That says a lot about the software and hardware performance curve. The price went down and the performance went up exponentially.”

Jem Schofield, president and creative director of Buttons Productions (and an Apple Certified Trainer), says it’s important to keep that kind of speed advantage in mind. “My feeling is, once they learn the application, people are going to be able to edit very fast,” he says. “This is not about working with formats natively; it’s about the speed at which you can do things. There are obvious holes – especially with audio editing – and it will take you longer to do certain things you’re used to doing in Final Cut Pro 7. But when we’re talking about taking footage that is organized and doing editorial work, you will be able to edit much faster.”

Despite the product’s flaws, Schofield says he gives Apple credit for redesigning the interface with an emphasis on efficiency. “They haven’t just stuck with a traditional NLE paradigm,” he says. “The biggest challenge is learning that new language and getting comfortable enough with it to begin approaching bigger projects.”

It’s Final Cut, But It’s Not Yet Pro

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses. Because FCPX doesn’t yet support external monitoring, Schechtman’s $22,000 OLED monitors are unusable with the system – a dealbreaker all by itself. But Schechtman says that’s an issue at the operating-system level, not with the FCPX software, and he’s confident that it will, eventually, be fixed. And then there’s the lack of multicamera editing support, which Schofield calls a huge problem. “I just finished producing 21 videos for Canon, and we shot every video on three 5D Mark IIs,” he says. “We couldn’t have done the post effectively on that project in Final Cut Pro X.” Those videos were edited in FCP7 instead.

Basically, Schofield says, FCPX is an impressive product with serious limitations. “There are workarounds, but a lot of them are kinda like blowing air into an Atari cartridge,” he says. “For version one of an app, it’s very powerful. But it still has a way to go.”

Schechtman agrees. “It may take a year to get it ready for prime time,” he says. “It may look like iMovie at first glance – everyone has that reaction – but most educated people say, the next day, ‘That’s not iMovie.’ It has interface paradigms and patterns we’ve wanted since 2008, and it shares no code with iMovie. That’s been verified. There are some things about the interface that I don’t really love, but when we moan load enough, they’ll change it. The buttons and bells and whistles may be missing, but it’s a beautiful fresh start. They’ve rethought the age-old editing paradigm.”

But How Do You Define ‘Pro’?

Believe it or not, some editors are getting work done in FCPX. Chris Duke, executive producer and host of Motorz TV, a half-hour show that airs on the Pursuit Channel on DirecTV and Dish Network, is using it now. He says the key for him was taking the time to properly learn all of the features. “While I was learning how to use FCPX, all the lightbulbs started going off,” he says. “This was not Final Cut Pro 7. It was not any NLE I had used in the past.”

Granted, Duke is pretty much exactly the user Apple seems to have had in mind. Rather than working in a broadcast or post facility where he’s sharing and exporting files and projects in collaboration with other users on other systems, he’s a one-man band, shooting on a consumer-grade DSLR and finishing shows on his desktop. “When we shot the first episode of season five, I started editing right away,” he says. “I didn’t have to transcode to ProRes, just start tagging and organizing clips. That’s a great new feature, and it doesn’t take long.”

With a little trial and error, Duke found lots more to like. “One view of the main window is an iMovie-like view that’s frustrating as hell, but the other one is a little more Final Cut-esque, and that’s the one I used,” he explains. “It’s much easier to mark ins and outs and scrub the playhead. Dropping the audio levels is so much simpler – you select the range tool, drag it across the clip, hit command-minus, and the audio levels go down with an automatic fade in and out. My workflow is completely tapeless, so I export a QuickTime .mov file and upload that. The broadcast uplinks I’m dealing with are only SD, so I export an MPEG-2 file through Compressor, and I can either FTP it or put it on a thumb drive, hard disk, or DVD-ROM and FedEx that to them.”

Of course, the first four seasons of his show are FCP7 projects, and with FCPX Duke suddenly lost the ability to access those episodes. He took advantage of Adobe’s half-price sales and got a copy of CS5.5 in case he ever needs to import one of those old shows. “It works, other than some Apple Motion elements,” he says. “I’d say it’s a 90 percent success, but it still takes work to get it into shape.” As a bonus, he gets to use Photoshop and After Effects as part of the suite.

Time to Train Up

Schofield agrees that this is a great time for pro editors to learn Adobe Premiere Pro or Avid Media Composer, whether or not they really intend to make the switch. “If you want to be a working editor in the industry now, then you need to learn at least one traditional NLE,” he says. “I wouldn’t recommend designating Final Cut Pro 7 as that NLE, because it’s an end-of-life product. You either need to learn Media Composer or Premiere Pro CS5.5. But you’d be stupid not to also learn how to use FCPX because, guess what, more and more people are going to be using it in the future. As it evolves and becomes full featured, there will just be more to learn. It’s common sense to start now.”

“Go get some training,” urges Duke. “Once you’ve done that, you’ll have the knowledge to go back to FCPX and start banging stuff out. You’ll be impressed at what you can do with a right-click that took you five or six steps before. But don’t keep trying to do it on your own, because you’ll fail. FCPX is not a traditional NLE, and if you keep trying to do things that don’t work, you’ll give up on it.”

Schechtman is a little more blunt, especially when it comes to editors who have already declared their intention to abandon FCP for the competition. “If you’re making a rash decision based on a product that isn’t complete, you’re an idiot,” he says. “We all live a technical life. We all can look back at the not-so-distant past and see that we’ve been through this before. Don’t jump ship, permanently, while someone else is rethinking the NLE for your benefit.”

He softens that stance a bit when he notes that everyone needs to find the right tool for the job, whether or not that tool is from Apple. “If I were running a little shop doing a lot with Photoshop and After Effects, I’d be using Premiere,” he admits. “But that’s not us. These days, I bleed anodized aluminum and glass with the Borg cube that is Apple. So I’ll take a bit of a wait-and-see approach.”