the candler blog

Final Aperture Pro, An Idea for What's to Come

Filmmaking, technology

Aperture 3 Promotional Still from Apple's
WebsiteLast week I listed my hopes for early 2011’s iteration of Final Cut Studio. I’ve gotten some great feedback for more additions folks would like, especially on this thread over at DVInfo.net. The two biggest cries seemed to be for 64-bit applications across the board and GPU acceleration, which are both long overdue at this point. However, I’d like to focus just on the unchanged interface of Final Cut Pro for now by looking at Apple’s other major creative app, Aperture.

When Stills Aren’t Still Anymore

Back in 2008, the photography gurus over at The Luminous Landscape posted an article called Raw Goes to the Movies. In it, they lay out the similarities between the Red One camera and digital SLR technology. The key quote comes from a disclaimer at the head of the piece:

There are significant implications for the still photography industry in the RED One and its kin, so if some insights into the future of our industry is of interest, read on.

After the RED One came the Nikon D90, followed by the much-lauded Canon 5D Mark II. Now, you can’t make a DSLR without adding HD video. And so we have two kinds of artists, photographers and filmmakers, converging on the same products. I know folks who rarely shoot video with their SLRs and some who rarely shoot stills. It’s a completely different landscape than it was just a few years ago. Production gear may be moving to meet the needs of filmmakers, but post-production solutions have been slow to follow.

The hardest part of the transition from tape to tapeless has been building post-production software that can keep up with the advances in cameras. When Panasonic introduced their P2 format, most were excited that the hassles of tape would go away. Instead, what we found was that, at least in Final Cut, the digital files still had to be transcoded, a process that took only a bit less time than capturing tapes. Things have only gotten worse as digital formats have proliferated. The files out of Canon’s HDSLRs are compressed H.264s. While they look absolutely stunning, they don’t take as well to color correction as tape formats, they still require transcoding in order to be smoothly edited, and their lack of timecode makes it impossible to match back to your camera “raw” files. At least, that’s the way things are today.

Photo Editing for Film Editors

In Aperture’s parlance, “photo editing” is the process of selecting which photos stay and which will go. “Image editing” is when you get in there and start adjusting colors, curves and anything else you like. I’ll leave it to armchair lexicographers to argue the nominal differences between the terms.

Filmmaking is an extremely old school game, mired in a century of tradition. Our digital editing platforms are all based around language that comes from cutting film my hand. Clip, Bin, and even Viewer are all terms that relate to physical pieces found in an old editing suite. When we went to cutting tape instead of film, the format may have changed but the process barely did. Tapeless workflows, especially for files coming out of HDSLRs, are radically different.

With Aperture 3, Apple introduced the ability for photographers to ingest all of their video files alongside their photos. Once inside of Aperture, videos can be trimmed, tagged, rated, and placed into HD slideshows. They can also be exported for editing in Final Cut Pro, but this process is a bit more laborious than Apple lets on. Aperture 2 only offered to place any non-photo files into a specified directory outside of the photo library. Now, it treats video as if it were a photo that moves.

Imagine a video library for each Final Cut project that is self-contained, much like the Aperture Library. In it you could tag media, hide clips you don’t like, and update metadata quickly in an interface that mimics Aperture. While you can certainly edit metadata in Final Cut today, the Browser window is cramped. Even when you have a monitor big enough to stretch it out, it’s tough to get anywhere without a right click. The simplicity of photo editing in Aperture, Adobe’s Lightroom and similar applications is something that could make media organization for video editors a breeze.

Final Aperture Pro, The Perfect Final Cut 8?

Aperture 3 is 64-bit, exists within one unified window and sports a slick full-screen interface, three features that make it the perfect pro app for Mac OS X 10.7 Lion. As I pointed out in my Final Cut Studio wish list, Final Cut’s interface is still based around a Mac OS 9 design. Whether we like it or not, the overall interface is do for an overhaul and I have a feeling it’s going to, eventually, start looking a lot like Aperture 3.

When I bring this up to other working editors, the biggest fear is that they would have to re-learn how to use Final Cut Pro. Most admit that the interface has its drawbacks, but has ultimately won them over. Changing things drastically would, unquestionably, alienate a lot of users. A few counterpoints to that though:

  1. You don’t have to upgrade. 2. You should never upgrade in the middle of a project, ever, on any platform. 3. Change for the sake of change is bad, but iterative interface upgrades aren’t inherently bad. 4. You can learn new software; don’t panic.

Apple, I hope, learned their lesson about drastically changing their interfaces after they introduced iMovie ’08. They are not a company that makes the same mistake twice, so don’t expect Final Cut 8 to be identical to Aperture 3. I’m betting it will still look very similar to the same ol’ Final Cut interface, but hopefully in one unified window that can make use of full screen real-estate. The biggest update I’d like to see is a browser that looks a lot more like Aperture, while keeping the actual tools of cutting the same (or similar).

What Aperture does well is keep projects organized under one roof. Final Cut is still based around a folder/bin structure that is up to the editor to maintain. There are times when “Smart Folers”, organized on the fly by metadata, would come in extremely handy in Final Cut. Photographers have the luxury of software that is built to bring in all of their creative output, whether it ends up being worth keeping around or not. Video editors, on the other hand, can lose control very quickly when piles of media get sucked into a bloated Final Cut project.

Documentaries for example have far more unused footage than fiction films simply by the nature of how shooting one works. In an Aperture-like version of Final Cut Pro, the documentarian can throw all of the footage he or she has into a Final Cut project and begin tagging and/or rating the various takes. Some films take years to shoot. With Final Cut as it stands now, it can be an insurmountable task to organize all of that footage. In fact, it may be easier to keep it organized outside of Final Cut. With a more robust organization system, this process could become much simpler to handle.

A system like this could also, theoretically, cut out the lengthy transcoding process filmmakers go through that leaves them with (at least) two sets of media. I’d love to see a version of Final Cut that treats camera originals of HDSLR video the same way it now treats RAW stills, in which the original files are always accessible beneath whatever “version” is currently in use. This could, potentially, subvert the need for real timecode on DSLRs, because your camera originals would be linked by file name. It’s not a perfect solution, but one that could work better that we have right now.

I don’t doubt that when Apple introduced iMovie ’08’s much-maligned interface, their intention was to judge how users took to it in hopes of making it the future of their video editing applications. Some of that interface has made it into Aperture 3’s design. The slideshow editor feels lifted straight out of iMovie. The more I look at Aperture 3, the more I hope that Final Cut Pro 8 looks more like it than FCP 1.2.5. At the very least, it would be nice for the two applications to have better integration so videos organized in Aperture could be easily worked with in Final Cut. Given how related our SLRs and our video cameras are these days, this seems to be an inevitability.

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