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Final Cut Pro X: Initial Reaction

technology

Last week, Apple previewed the forthcoming edition of Final Cut Pro, dubbed Final Cut Pro X. I’ve written here before about what I would like to see in the next iteration of the app and I thought I’d take a moment to share my thoughts on this latest demo.

The Price

A lot has been made of Apple’s pricing of FCP X, but I can’t quite see what the big deal is. Where once Final Cut Pro was only accessible through the purchase of Final Cut Studio, which most recently sold for $999, Final Cut Pro X will be available on the App Store for $299. Final Cut Studio included DVD Studio Pro, Compressor, Motion, Color, Soundtrack Pro and a host of other odds and ends. Dipping FCP X down to $299 for a stand-alone app sounds about right; it’s not a deal by any means. Being offered on the App Store may come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever spent a half day installing it, though I’ll bet the download alone will take some time.

The Toy

I’ve been hearing that FCP X is a replacement for Final Cut Express, the $199 stand-alone, stripped down version of Final Cut Pro that Apple has been selling since 2003. This is total misinformation and I’m not sure why people are jumping to this conclusion. Perhaps the seemingly (but not actually, remember?) reduced price is fueling this perception. &nbsp_place_holder;Hopefully Apple will discontinue that product for precisely this reason. There should only be one Final Cut.

This melds with another point of confusion for Final Cut editors fearful of change in their workflow: whether or not this is a souped up version of iMovie. From the demo, it’s clear that Apple has taken cues from iMovie as it has evolved over the years. This has been expected, as the designer of the ill-received iMovie ‘08 came from the Final Cut team. However, the only thing it legitimately shares with the current iMovie appears to be media organization, something that has always been a sore point for Final Cut Pro and precisely the direction the software needs to move in the tapeless era. I expect that we will see Apple testing the waters more and more in iMovie for features that will one day end up in Final Cut. If that sounds crazy, just look at how iPhoto and Aperture have coexisted over the years.

The Power

64-bit. GPU acceleration. Cocoa.

These are features that are long overdue in Apple’s pro video apps. Though there have been many advances since Final Cut 1 debuted in 1999, the current model you could buy in a store today shares not only an interface with the original but much of the same DNA as it is written in Carbon, OS X’s now outmoded API. I’m no programmer, but I know enough to know that Cocoa, Carbon’s successor, enables apps to access OS X’s most modern and most powerful technologies, namely access to the 64-bit processor (which ups RAM access way past the 32-bit 4 GB constraint) and access to any available cores on on your graphics card. Finally, FCP gets to use features in the system that heretofore had been reserved for designers and gamers.&nbsp_place_holder;

Apple’s approach to harnessing all of this power appears, at least from the demo, to be somewhat ingenious. For years, Final Cut has featured realtime playback of certain commonly used effects (color correction, text overlays, etc.) and hat worked out…okay. “RT Playback” would scale to your system, allowing only the effects your processor could handle to play without stopping to render. With FCP X, not only rendering but transcoding are, supposedly, a thing of the past. For certain tapeless formats (at least for DSLR HD footage) there will no longer be a time-consuming Log and Transfer transcoding process. Instead, you will simply bring in your footage and Final Cut will start churning through transcodes in the background. Effected shots will be rendered in the background while the editor is none the wiser.

The Gear

Of course, all of this is built to scale with Apple’s systems, so a low-end MacBook Pro will run differently than a fully configured Mac Pro. The good news is you can finally have good reason to up your graphics card. iMacs in particular could become beastly edit bays, offering quad-core processing with graphics cards carting 1 GB RAM; and that’s only what’s available today.

Hopefully soon, Apple will unleash a new crop of iMacs with the usual round of spec bumps and, crucially, the recently unveiled Thunderbolt port. Since Thunderbolt is based around PCI technology, one could conceivably have a full resolution input/output setup with nothing more than an iMac and a breakout box. Once storage devices start shipping later this year with the port, editing high-resolution video will be completely unencumbered on the iMac and even on the MacBook Pro. AJA, Blackmagic Design and MXO have already announced interface devices utilizing Thunderbolt, while G-Technology and LaCie are advertising storage solutions as well.

The Curve

The fear whenever an industry standard app gets rebuilt from the ground up is that the learning curve will be too sharp for some people to keep up. Apple has done what few companies in its positing would dare to attempt. Final Cut is on par with Microsoft Word or Adobe Photoshop in terms of market saturation; so many people rely on these apps that to radically change them could alienate users on a grand scale and, at worst, cripple the industries that rely on them. For this reason, those two examples have remained fairly stagnant for decades. Final Cut might avoid that fate or it might send editors flocking to another platform; time will tell.

The editors who don’t adapt will ultimately be swallowed up by those who will. I still use Final Cut Pro 6 without too much trouble (though I often wish I has a ProRes Proxy workflow), but think of the difference. On my old MacBook Pro, it takes about forty minutes to import an hour of Canon 5D footage. A colleague with FCP X would already be editing while I was out loafing (or writing a blog post, or watching Battlestar). The difficulty of the learning curve is no reason to avoid change. Plus, there’s always Avid and Premiere Pro (and other stuff I don’t care to mention).

Modern Times

Final Cut and Avid were written around videotape workflows. Not only are fewer crews shooting tape today, but even film can now be laid off to digital files and stored on massive hard drives. The age of tape is one of precision and tangibility, with media that could be labeled, handed off, shelved, retrieved, and so on. But it is coming to an end.

We are entering the age of tapeless editing, one which asks us to be more stringent about backups, more exacting about our organization and more considerate about our space limitations. It is unclear how robust Apple’s file management is in FCP X, though they did show off some cool tricks involving keywords and smart folders. The Las Vegas demo focused heavily, in fact only, on tapeless workflows, which should be a sign of great things to come. Tape has become a hindrance that manages to slow down workflows even when it is extricated from the process. If FCP X can drag the champions of tape into the next era of post-production, then it’s worth not only every penny, but every headache that is sure to come on everyone’s first project.&nbsp_place_holder;

I, for one, can’t wait.

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