Final Cut Pro X has been controversial because it greatly alters the traditional workflow and eliminates features many editors find essential.

Some of those missing pieces — like multi-cam editing — are apparently coming soon. But most of the big changes are simply The Way Things Are Done Now. They go beyond keyboard shortcuts and helper apps to fundamentally different ways of working.

It’s fair to call this a brand-app that happens to be named Final Cut Pro.

I’ve used several incarnations of Final Cut Pro over the years. I don’t cut things that often, so each time I started editing something new, I had to spend a few minutes reminding myself how everything worked. In 2006, I finally took a FCP class at UCLA.

Here’s a very juvenile video I cut using the sample footage that comes with one of the tutorials:

My assistant Stuart actually used to teach FCP in college. It’s fair to say he’s more experienced with how the old app worked.

Over the past four weeks, each of us has had the opportunity to cut a few projects in the new FCP X and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. I think the differences in our reactions are largely based on how familiar we were with the old version.

I’ll go first.

Runner

I wrote, shot and edited this spot for FDX Reader myself.

Everything was shot on the Canon 7D. Rather than import directly from the camera, I used Image Capture to transfer the movie files to the hard drive, then created a New Event in FCP X and imported the files.

I find the Event metaphor to be one of the most annoying choices in FCP X. Events make sense for iMovie — here’s Katie’s birthday! — but not for Final Cut Pro. Functionally, you want a container for all the footage related to what you’re cutting. Events aren’t exactly analogous to Bins in the old FCP, but Bins would be a better name than Events.

Regardless, once I put the footage into an Event, and began a new Project, I found the process surprisingly enjoyable. FCP X churns away in the background, analyzing footage and transcoding proxies. But at no point did I notice, even on my 2006 Mac Pro. I could start going through footage right away, versus waiting an hour or more for FCP 7 to transcode to something editable. Big win for the new guy.

In FCP 7, I would often drag little bits of footage to the timeline and start picking favorites. FCP X strongly encourages you to make some choices right in the Bin (err, the All Clips window).

Using the standard J-K-L keys, you play through your clips. When you find something that you might want, mark ins and outs (I and O). Then F to mark that section as a favorite. Yes, the handles that mark ins and outs look a lot like those in iMovie, but the functionality remains pretty traditional. You can do a lot more from the keyboard in FCP X than I’d expected.

Once you’ve looked at everything, Control-F switches you to Favorite Clips. These are basically your selects. Everything you’re going to want will probably be here.

From there, you drag clips to the storyline and start assembling your cut.

Unlike FCP 7, you can’t just throw clips anywhere. In FCP X, everything is magnetic and wants to stick together. To leave blank space between clips you have to deliberately Insert Gap to get a chunk of dark nothingness. It’s neither better or worse than before, but it’s certainly different.

Also different:

  • You have one Viewer, rather than two.
  • The Inspector handles almost any variable that needs to be adjusted, from video to image to metadata.
  • Recorded audio stays attached to its video unless you very deliberately detach it. Things don’t get randomly out of sync.
  • In addition to the normal playhead, you can scrub across footage to play it. I found the scrubber mostly benign, but occasionally turned it off when it got annoying.

I found Compound Clips to be incredibly useful.

Often when editing, you have a section that’s working nicely and want to make sure you don’t mess it up while working on other things. In FCP X, just select the relevant pieces of audio and video and make it a Compound Clip. Everything sucks down into one filmstrip. It’s logical and works.1

In the Runner video, all the opening stuff with Amy typing lived as a compound clip.

I did all the titles and graphics in FCP X. I found one bug: the final tagline “Now on iPhone and iPad” wouldn’t animate properly unless I added spaces to the end.

On the whole, I like FCP X. Most of what’s missing I honestly don’t miss, because I never used it.

It takes a while to get used to the new interface, but I can’t imagine needing to take a class to understand how to use basic features. And while I still have FCP 7 on my hard drive, I doubt I’ll need to open it again.

Stuart’s impression of FCP X is far less favorable.

FDX Reader Design Video

by_stuartThe Design Video above was a good, straightforward, not-too-complicated way to dive into FCP X.

I’d heard all the complaints from professional editor friends, but took them with a grain of salt.

I know my Final Cut, but I’m no pro. I understand what an EDL is, but I don’t ever use one, so for me that loss is nil. I’ve only ever edited a multicam show with Final Cut once, and it was with FCP 4, before the multicam editor was introduced. The complaint there seemed a little First World Problem to me.

I figured Apple was taking a somewhat inefficient workflow, letting go of a few extraneous steps, and coming back with something more efficient. I hate the new Facebook versions as much as the next guy, but I always come around. You get used to workflow changes. And with Apple, we’re talking about the guys who simplified the mouse — how bad could this be?

Answer: bad. I should have taken the warnings more seriously.

First, let’s get the good out of the way. The 64-bit support, on-the-fly rendering is amazing. We used to buy new computers to shave down rending time by a few seconds, and now it all happens while you’re working. It’s magic.

And this version really does lower barriers of entry. My dad’s a fairly savvy computer user for someone his age, but even so he’d probably have had trouble picking up FCP 7. FCP X I’ll bet he could learn before lunch. And his video would look good, too. It would have titles and transitions and color correction, and it wouldn’t look any tackier than a Star Wars prequel, which is to say it would be tacky but palatable. He could get 70% there with ease, and 90% there with an extra bit of effort.

But the handholding that would make this possible is also what makes FCP X maddening.

The basics are easy, but you’re forced into doing it the easy way, which means you need a workaround every time the “easy way” doesn’t do what you want it to do, or when you want to do something it doesn’t do. A GPS is a nice crutch, but it hampers your ability to truly learn a city. And what happens when a road is closed?

John points out the advantages to compounding clips, but the linking also makes some changes difficult. I encountered difficulties similar to those you encounter with merging layers in Photoshop: it makes everything cleaner and more organized, but it’s difficult to get back to the individual parts.

Unlike with Photoshop layer merging, you can unparse compounded clips, but some of the metadata is lost. An example from the above video: the second time I used the iPhone image overlay, I resized the iPhone exactly how I wanted it, and then compounded it into the clip. Later, I inserted the iPhone overlay into a different part in the timeline, and naturally I wanted it to be the same size as I had it the first time. When I unparsed that first compound clip to reference the iPhone size, the scale read 100%, even though I had shrunken it. It was still the right size in the video, it just wasn’t giving me the right readout. So I had to re-create through guess-and-check.

I also had difficulty massaging audio. I would lower a keyframed section of audio a decible or two, and the entire track would follow. This could be a bug, me using the program differently than intended, or a poorly thought out side effect of some other well thought out workflow; none would surprise me. But whatever the reason, it is extremely annoying.

FCP X is full of semi-advanced effects that are extremely easy to use, and get you about 90% there — perfect for a backyard blockbuster, but completely useless for a professional.

The chroma keying does drag-and-drop green-screening that is instantly okay, and very good with about five seconds (literally) of extra effort. But the edges are almost impossible to get perfect, leaving you with an effect that will have any semi-trained eye saying, “Wow — good green screening!”

But the best edits and effects are those you don’t notice. 90% there is 100% not-there.

Titles, color correction, and other production-value-uppers are the same. With titles, it’s easier to make something good with FCP X than it was with FCP 7 and Live Type, but it’s nearly impossible to make something original and great. You have to import their template into Motion and edit it manually, reverse engineering how they did it and working from where they left off.

Sure, it sounds nice to not have to build from scratch, but Live Type is fairly intuitive — I never complained about starting from the beginning. I prefer the extra bit of effort on the front end if it gives me total control.

And I’ll bet the best of these 90%-there effects are sure to show up in every student film in the country next year. So get ready.

I ran into hand-holding problems with the audio sync feature, too. In theory, the feature is fantastic: it lets you easily sync your video with externally recorded audio. In practice, the feature is nothing more than a tease.

For the above video, Nima (the head in the laptop) was in New York, so we shot him over Skype and had him record his own audio. We also recorded audio here, in camera. As one would expect, Nima’s audio was delayed a barely-noticeable split second relative to us on our end, and visa-versa. When it came time to sync the audio, FCP without fail latched onto us as the anchor point instead of Nima, so Nima’s audio was off every time.

Our (granted, extreme, but also I’m sure somewhat common) example demonstrates the feature’s shortcoming: if your two audio sources are far enough apart that the speed of sound (or in our case, the speed of the internet) is noticeable in a relative sense, it won’t sync right.

There’s an easy fix: let us manually assign an anchor. But as far as I can tell, this isn’t possible. We’re exactly where we’d be if we had to sync the old fashioned way.

My biggest complaint is the elimination of timeline tracks. Your project exists in sort of a bubble state now. Non-linear has been taken to a whole other level.

If you have different video tracks laid on top of each other, video only stays in the higher state when there’s overlap. Let’s say you have a five second clip (clip 1), with a fifteen second clip on top of it (clip 2). If you split clip 2 down the middle into 2a and 2b, clip 2b will drop vertically inline with clip 1, since there’s nothing below it to stop it. It will all still play correctly in the master, but in the project timeline, clip 2b is no longer vertically aligned with its own first half.2

This makes organization almost impossible. I was lost in my own project constantly, and I never attempted anything too fancy. I sometimes fool around with somewhat more complicated projects in my spare time — stop motion/puppetry stuff that requires precisely placed single frames. Without timelines, it’s foolish to even try something like that. It may even be easier to do it deck-to-deck.

Sure, I’m coming at this from a more experienced place than John, but I’m no Final Cut pro, so my complaints are about basic pro-sumer functionality, not anything more. This video puts all the pro gripes in one place if you’re interested.

I taught some Final Cut in college, but I am for the most part self-taught; I went through film school in the modern era, but I wasn’t a production major. And USC uses Avid, anyway. I’m exactly the kind of person that should be using Final Cut Pro — I’m computer savvy, but I’m no expert; I want to make professional quality movies, and I’m willing to put in the time and effort to do so.

Final Cut Pro used to be perfect for me. iMovie has always been amateurish, and Avid is one step too much. I’ve heard people call FCP X “iMovie Pro,” which to my dismay is very accurate. So now I and those like me are left with nothing. Give me back Final Cut Pro; if I wanted iMovie Pro, Final Cut Express was already an option.

Discussion time

JA: Wow, you really don’t like FCP X.

SF: In a different time in my life I’d have dreamed of a program like this, but in a world where FCP Studio already exists and this takes the place of it, it’s just sad.

JA: Sad? Really? In your review you point out that it’s tremendously faster. It also natively supports a ton of formats that took arduous transcoding in FCP 7.

Here’s my analogy: You grew up driving a pickup truck. It was rusted out, but it got you places, and you had great times with it. After graduating college, you finally buy your first real car. Power steering! Air conditioning! An MP3 jack!

Feeling flush, you go to Ikea and buy the remarkably affordable Släcker couch. But oh no! It won’t fit in your new car. You miss your old truck. And because of that, you decide your new car sucks.

SF: The 64-bitness, the on-the-fly rendering, really is fantastic. But that should/would have been the FCP 8 update. I would have gladly paid the upgrade price for that. That’s not a fundamental change in the program; that’s a new (overdue) feature.

I see your metaphor, but I think it’s flawed. To me, it’s more like this: I love driving. It’s my favorite hobby. I love my car, I love how fast it is, I love how I know exactly how to turn the wheel to get it to do what I want. It’s the seventh I’ve owned of this model! Sure, the shocks aren’t the best, and with the way I drive there’s always a risk of crashing, but I’m a pretty good driver — I tend to avoid big bumps; I don’t crash.

Then I get a letter from my car company: they’ve completely redesigned my car, and are now offering the new model at 1/3rd the price! The shocks are fantastic, and they’ve found a way to make crashes so rare that even little kids can now legally drive!

I run out to the dealership and throw my down payment at them. I can’t write the check fast enough. And then I get in, buckle my seat belt, and the car starts driving. I tell it where I want it to go, and it takes off, slow and steady. Sure, the shocks are great, and sure, I won’t crash this way, but I also don’t get out of it what I want. They’ve defined what “driving” means now.

I was willing to work through the occasional FCP 7 frustrations if it means I have control. It’s the FCP X handholding that I hate. It may have taken effort in 7, but at least I get the result I want.

JA: You say “hand-holding,” but to me it’s mostly that a lot of the esoterica in the older versions has been replaced with default behaviors and settings that get you started. I mean, consider the 3-Way Color Corrector in the old FCP. It was genuinely bizarre. You may not like the new color board, or any of the default looks it offers you, but it’s a way of demonstrating what’s happening.

SF: I see what you’re saying about the color correction. I just think there’s a ceiling now to how much you can do. You’re given less control, which seems to be the Apple philosophy in general.

JA: I feel like there are actually a lot more adjustable parameters than there used to be. I don’t remember nearly so many things being key-framable.

SF: I’m seeing it the other way — there’s a lot less easily key-framable elements here. Everything used to be key-framable, and now it’s more frustrating to get there.

JA: I’m sure somebody out there has counted. In terms of floors and ceilings, I think FCP X raises the floor a lot. In earlier versions of FCP, if you didn’t know what you were doing, it was incredibly frustrating to even get started. That’s why there was a whole industry of classes and tutorials. They weren’t teaching editing. They were teaching Final Cut Pro.

SF: Final Cut needed to be taught to some people, but what program worth its weight doesn’t need to be? And I would argue that editing was being taught. Sure, someone can point a camera and film a birthday party, but that doesn’t make them a director in the same way their using iMovie to cut that video doesn’t make them an editor. Those Final Cut classes were teaching editing as much as they were teaching Final Cut; no Avid experts needed more than a few seconds of demonstration.

JA: In a very real way, Final Cut Pro was designed so Walter Murch could cut Cold Mountain. This new version wasn’t designed for him at all.

If you make your living editing video and film, many of the changes in FCP X are bad for you. Stuff you need is missing (EDLs, multi-cam) and the storyline metaphor may be problematic (particularly for longer-form projects). The ceiling is lower in terms of cutting feature films and broadcast TV. I think eventually there will be plug-ins and tools that will make it feasible to cut a feature film on it, but it’s clearly not Apple’s priority with FCP X.

So who is the audience? I think there’s a much, much larger group of people who need editing software that’s both more powerful than FCP Studio and a lot easier to understand. That’s who Apple made FCP X for.

How many professional editors are there in the world? Ten thousand? How many professionals in the world need to edit something, and need software to do that? A million? More? These folks are cutting video for the web. For them, I think FCP X fits the bill really well.

SF: It’s fair to ask about the audience, I just think it’s sad to forget the ten-thousand in favor of the million. Why bind the hands of the ten-thousand out of fear the million can’t operate without bound hands?

In terms of Apple philosophy, this example is outside of FCP X, but I think it illustrates it well: in Lion, try going through Finder and accessing your iPhoto library. You get to Pictures, and the library folder is there, but you can’t access it. Some Googling will tell you how to, so it’s possible, but it’s not easy; the default is that it’s locked. Why limit my access to my own photos? Why put up that barrier at all?

FCP X is just a lot of that. They want me to do it their way. Great — I get that, and that’s fine if I’m looking to just do something easily and simply. But I’m not. I’m looking to create professional quality movies, and I want to have total control over the product I’m putting out. (God, I feel like we’re talking about Kubrick’s geometry again.)

JA: I think it’s a stretch to compare hiding the iPhoto Library so my daughter doesn’t delete it to most of the changes in FCP X. If you don’t like their stock transitions or generators or titles, don’t use them. The integration with Motion is better than ever. Or build things in After Effects. Comparing something that you spent an hour doing from scratch with something FCP X had built-in doesn’t feel fair.

SF: The iPhoto comparison I meant generally, but in my head I was thinking more along the lines of bins/sub clips vs favorites. I understand why they changed the workflow as they did, but I don’t think they realized how fundamentally this changes the way I and others operate. I’m not much of a simple I, O guy — I like to be able to point and click. The favorites function just isn’t conducive to that at all.

JA: I think there’s a sort of Turing test to conduct here. Give two experienced editors the same footage. Put them in locked rooms, one with the new version of FCP and one with an old version. When they’re finished cutting, look at the results and tell me which one used which application.

SF: Can we do it with fringe cases? And can we also have people try to guess who is who based on their post-edit stress-test charts?

JA: Can I be honest, because I’m your boss? A lot of times when I saw the frustrations you were having while you were cutting, my first instinct was to tell you that you were doing it wrong.

You weren’t, of course. You’re allowed to do things however you want to do them. But using the keyboard isn’t some primitive backwoods way of editing.

An example: You wanted to keep your audio and video on separate tracks, because that’s how you were used to working. And you got frustrated because it kept causing problems. But doing a J-cut with the attached audio is actually pretty slick and straightforward. It’s just not what you were expecting. If you had learned this way first, it would have seemed natural.

SF: I hear you there, and I’m not against using the keyboard — in fact, I think the keyboard is required for any basic editing. But it’s the fact that I have to mark I/O, and I can’t slice subclips at all. It’s that when I get my playhead to the point I want to and mark my O, and I move my mouse to another part of the screen, grazing over the box I was working in, the playhead moves and I lose the O.

JA: I share your frustration with the skimming. But to me, that’s just a thing I’ll learn to anticipate, the same way I turn snapping on and off.

SF: I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s the New way or the Old way; I think it’s Their New way versus freedom of choosing the way you want to operate. Why take away freedoms?

JA: You take away options and features (“freedom”) if they make your larger goals possible. What are Apple’s goals with FCP X? To make a more powerful editor that is more accessible to more users. I think that’s a smart play for Apple in the long term, even though they’ve pissed off a lot of people this year.

And they’re not the only game in town. Have you tried Premiere or the low-end Avid?

SF: I have not tried Premiere, but I’m eager to. I haven’t used the low-end Avid either, but I can survive on the high-end Avid. I just don’t like how linear their non-linear system is — the opposite of the complaint I have with FCP X. Although I hear Avid has gotten better with newer versions.

JA: To me, FCP X is an amazing application that suffers for being called Final Cut Pro. It sets the expectation that it’s supposed to replace this venerable program that a lot of people love, and it just doesn’t. Even if they had just dropped the Pro off the end, I think they would have better positioned the launch. I don’t blame existing users for feeling misled.

But poor communication strategy doesn’t make it a bad product.

SF: Agreed. It should have been called iMovie Pro, or Final Cut X-press, but it’s not. While it didn’t replace FCP 7 in terms of functionality, it did replace it in the product line. We won’t get the 64-bit FCP Studio. Ever. I don’t mind the misleading as much as I mind being cut off.

JA: And here’s where my sympathy runs out. Avid remains the go-to editor for features. Premiere is evidently fast and good again. Everyone has choices. (In fact, by moving away from the high end, one could argue Apple is helping to keep those alternatives viable.)

Apple said very clearly, very early, that they couldn’t just simply take the code base from Final Cut Pro and make it 64-bit. They needed to write a new application, basically from scratch. I would have loved that theoretical Final Cut Pro 8, but I understand why they wanted to reach a broader audience.

SF: You’re right that Avid and Premiere are now the way to go. I’ve been a Mac for eight years, and I originally made the switch for one reason: Final Cut Pro. I know many others who did the same. It’s a shame they’re losing us.

JA: They won’t miss you.

SF: Yeah, but I’ll miss them.

JA: And I disagree with the blanket assessment that Avid and Premiere are now the way to go. A lot of the frustrations you list are genuinely bugs: keyframes that don’t hold right, quirks in how composite clips work. They’ll get fixed. Avid and Premiere will have things that drive you crazy as well. You just haven’t encountered them yet.

SF: Very true. And I have seen enough Avid to know it does indeed drive me crazy.

JA: I’ll have you write up your experiences with whichever one you try first.

  1. One exception: If you pin something to the outside of a compound clip — a sound effect, for example — it’s likely to slide around if you change something inside the clip. The sound effect only knows its position relative to the entire clip, not any component inside.
  2. Talk about frustrating: I tried to recreate this for a screen capture, and I couldn’t get it to happen after having it happen without fail every time while editing the above video. It’s like an annoying younger brother who turns angelic the moment mom and dad are watching. …so I cheated the screen cap.