The great Final Cut Pro controversy

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, June 28, 2011, 6:03 PM | comments: 1

What a nasty and ugly scene on the Internets, after Apple announced the new Final Cut Pro X. You would think that someone killed an industry or something. I have to admit that I'm surprised the user base around Final Cut was as big as it was! It seems like just a few years ago that the only thing "serious editors" used was Avid (and I have a thing or two to say about "serious editors").

I got my first non-linear editing system in 1998, I think it was. It was a Media 100 system, which came in way cheaper than a comparable Avid system, and frankly I thought the interface was better. It was awesome to be free of tape, even if I could only keep one or two projects on it at a time. That 20 gig hard drive array was expensive! Glad it wasn't my money.

After I left the broadcast world, Avid eventually came in with an "affordable" software-only system, a little over a grand, and I bought into it. The hardware requirements were stupid-strict, and it would only run on Windows 2000. But honestly, there was nothing else that quite worked the way I expected at the time. Later on, when Macs went Intel, I bought a Mac, and Final Cut Pro came soon after. Adobe finally got serious about Premier Pro around that time as well, so I got that "for free" with Photoshop and such. Never used Premier much, but frankly it was about the same in terms of capability as the competitors.

There's an important thing to note about this 13-years of experience with this variety of software. While the hardware requirements went down, and the resolution of the video went up, the user interface for these apps was not that different, and really just evolved in little ways. No one really said, "There's a better way."

Apple, however, did. The company has a long history of chucking one paradigm and replacing it entirely, often inflicting some pain in the process. For example, they tossed floppy drives before anyone else would, and that freaked people out. They've cycled through a number of different ports and connections for peripherals. They famously ditched the computer tower. In the end, many of these changes were the right thing to do, and generally people fell in line. They even managed to create wholesale change between versions of their operating system, something Microsoft would never dare to do.

But sometimes, they also get it wrong. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, and said that "apps" were just things that lived in a browser, it pissed people off. I still believe that, games aside, he was absolutely correct. The market wasn't having it, and eventually every phone platform included an app store of sort, with tens of thousands of things you'll never use.

The question with Final Cut Pro X, then, is whether or not they got it wrong this time. What they've done is dramatically change the way you work with video. They chucked the old paradigm, and people are pissed. I think some of the complaints are valid, but my gut says it's not as bad as "professional editors" are making it out to be. Admittedly, I don't have the software. As I'm not currently editing anything, I'm not sure I need it. Much has been made about what it doesn't do instead of what it does.

Here is a summary of the "missing" stuff, and my reaction:

  • It doesn't open projects made in the previous version. My first reaction is, well, then use the old version. Thinking more about it, I have a feeling the reason behind this is that the organization of media and the timeline so different that this just doesn't entirely make sense to implement as a feature. The only credence I can really give this complaint is that they've apparently stopped selling the old version.
  • Media organization by "event" sucks. Again, I've only watched their demos, but it doesn't seem that impossible to work with. It just seems different, not better or worse. I don't think I've ever organized stuff the same way twice using the classic bin paradigm, so perhaps I'm not qualified to have an opinion.
  • No multicam. I suppose this is a feature that wedding or event video people totally need. Legitimate gripe, but again, you can probably continue to use the old tool, or a competitor.
  • No EDL support, or output to various XML formats. I'm on the fence about this one. The EDL (edit decision list) always seemed odd to me, even in the days of tiny hard drives. The idea is that you work "offline" with crappy low quality stuff, then later you load up the good stuff for an "online" edit. Aside from the days you'd work on HD films when the hardware couldn't render a dissolve without a coffee break (meaning you worked on Star Wars Episode I), I've never understood this. Even five years ago, the hardware seemed adequate for working with HD natively.
  • Trackless editing. This is another weird one. The argument is that in post-production, some dude at an audio desk will expect stuff to be on certain tracks. If you're doing really high end work, yeah, that's a problem. I also wonder if it's a matter of the other tools needing to evolve. I think the trackless model is fantastic, and lets you blast stuff together quickly. I'd have to try it.
  • Poor hardware support (or none). I wonder if that's a driver issue. The fundamental change under the covers is that they now use QuickTime X, a long overdue change to the fundamental architecture of their media platform. Video in and out boxes don't work with it, which is a little strange because it has been out for at least a year and a half.

Those seem to be the biggest issues. I've seen a few complaints about lack of plugin support and no solid color grading tools, but I'm not sure I buy those, as the demos I've watched show very robust grading tools, including keys. Getting stuff in and out for use in After Effects also is apparently tedious.

My bigger impression is that the new software isn't full of missing stuff as much as it's full of different stuff. Again, I could be talking out of my ass, because I haven't used it. Some of the toxicity toward the product seems more rooted in its similarity to iMovie, which mostly paints "professionals" as snobs more than anything else. Anyone can learn software. It's a tool. Knowing how to use it doesn't make you an artist.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. I think fundamentally, Final Cut Pro X has some powerful tools set around a different way of thinking. I can't quite write that off as bad. The problem is that people don't always like new ways of thinking. That said, I think the easy solution is to keep selling the old version for now.

By the way, there's a huge lesson here that the best people in software development already know: Deliver your stuff early and often. Apple's secret bullshit can sometimes bite them in the ass. You can plan and plan, but until you get something in front of people, you never truly know if it's the right thing for the people who will use it. Get it out early, even in an incomplete form, and it's a lot easier to change and adapt.


Dave Althoff

June 28, 2011, 11:01 PM #

Gee, when we bought Avid Xpress DV v.1.0 (and immediately upgraded to v1.3) it only ran on Windows NT on specially bundled IBM Intellistation hardware...
I'm an Avid guy, have been since I first got to play with an off-lining Media Composer in 1992, back when an EDL was the only practical way to use a non-linear editor: you cut on the Avid, then hauled your EDL into the edit suite and used the timecode notes on the EDL to conform the videotape. Is that how they use it now, for conforming film? Anyway, I'm watching this whole Final Cut Pro thing with interest, but from some distance because I'm an Avid guy (even though that means this computer is trapped in 2007).
I think some of what Apple has done with Final Cut Pro X looks an awful lot like what Avid has been doing since 1992, but dressed up in a more mouse-friendly package. Some of what they are doing looks to be long overdue and freakin' awesome: every clip that comes off of my camcorder now has six audio tracks on it, and I would much prefer to deal with those as a single unit. On the other hand, the new models for project and media management basically *suck*, and I have seen some really coherent arguments as to *why*. Some of it is because editors have been thinking in film terms since the nitrate age and therefore a clip is an object that goes somewhere...but in the new Final Cut world it's just a pointer to an object. Final Cut is taking the brain-dead media handling of Avid Xpress DV/Pro (all media files from all projects stored in a single OMFI MediaFiles directory) and putting the editor into that world. Having every clip in the library always available to you is nice...except when that *really* isn't what you want. Most of us work on multiple, unrelated projects on our systems.
From what I am seeing, a big part of the problem is that while Final Cut does a lot, Final Cut is only part of the post production process, the new program has broken a lot of things that made it possible for editors to use Final Cut in a larger system. For instance, Avid (Digidesign) *owns* audio post, but for that to happen, all those neat little audio packages that you and I love have to be broken down into individual, synchronized audio tracks that ProTools can handle. And then once the sweetening and mixing is done in ProTools, those tracks have to come back to Final Cut final cut and mastering.
So yeah, there is a certain amount of grousing by editors who don't want their cheese moved. But it looks to me that it goes well beyond that, to editors who would very much like to go along with some of the changes, but for whatever reason *can't* because they have to work in an environment where the systems have to collaborate.

Remember when Office 2007 changed all the file formats? What Apple has done with Final Cut is similar. Except that if Microsoft had done that changeover the way Apple handled Final Cut, then there would be no Compatibility Pack for Office 2003, and Word 2007 would have been incapable of importing from or exporting to anything but Microsoft Works...and any publisher running InDesign would be incapable of importing files from the new Word. That's the level to which the new Final Cut screws up existing workflows, and I can fully understand why a few people are more than a little upset about it.

But then, Apple did the same thing to us QuickTime users when they brought out QuickTime-X. I got a reminder today about what an immature trainwreck that thing still is. I hope they are planning on giving that at least half the functionality of QT-7 by the time Lion comes around...but that's another rant for another day...

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