FCP X – First Musings

Final Cut Pro X (version 10.0) arrived 8:30 a.m. yesterday morning at the App Store for $299, unleashing torrents of criticism about missing features and a perceived drift from professional product to one that consumers might find friendlier.

So far, so good.

Let me explain.

I, too, had an advance copy (version 9.9.1.77) and wrestled to overcome personal expectations of what a 64-bit next-gen Final Cut should be, given the countless hours of my life spent in front of this revolutionary NLE since it first introduced us to FireWire and DV editing back in 1999.

As I wrote last night to Filmmaker editor Scott Macaulay, who has been keenly tracking FCP X since its sneak peek at NAB in April, “I’ve had problems with FCP X too, but since when is the unfamiliar a comfortable ride?”

To force myself through FCP X’s new paces, I’m in the process of cutting a small 6 to 7-minute promo for a tribute CD honoring, for a good cause, the work of a seminal rock & roll legend. I’ll have more to say about the practical experience of cutting with FCP X a bit further down the road, after I finish this assignment.

In the meantime, check out the best overview of FCP X that appeared yesterday, written for MacWorld by the estimable Gary Adcock. Chase that stiff drink with a close reading of Phil Hodgetts’ incisive Q&A exploring specific features and workflow concerns. Don’t neglect the hundred or so comments at the end, fired off by emotional pro editors hashing deeper issues.

You may be taken aback that much of the pro functionality found in FCP 7.0.3 has gone poof. Gone, at least for the moment, are Cinema Tools (for conforming film negative), RS-422 control of tape decks, multicam editing, and exports of XML, OMF, and EDLs.

Moreover, all third-party plug-ins that grace FCP 7.0.3′s ecosystem must be rewritten for 64-bit APIs (application programming interface) before they can be used with FCP X. Which affects use of codecs. Frustrating not to be able to import XDCAM EX files. (ProRes, on the other hand, is one of the most modern codecs in that it was conceived with multicore encoding and 64-bit processing in mind, which is why it’s an FCP X cornerstone.)

But let’s extol the flip side of this dramatic transformation in NLE technology.

FCP X is an entirely new app. Under the hood and behind the steering wheel. Some will be argue it should have taken an entirely new name too, since, as others have pointed out, it’s essentially version 1.0.

Leaps in technology come at a cost. Remember Apple’s transition from OS 9 to OS X? What a shock to be forced by the imperatives of progress to abandon our OS 9 comfort zone for the strange planet Unix. It took years for many of us to recover full functionality, since quite a few cherished OS 9 apps were never ported over. But this abrupt break with the past gave us multithreading and eliminated hair-pulling system crashes. It gave us a modern and powerful operating system with modular architecture that swung wide the door to the future. The same could be said for Apple’s more recent transition to Intel processors. Just look at what we now enjoy on Mac products.

FCP chief architect Randy Ubilos has lived and breathed NLEs since introducing the first versions of Adobe Premiere. FCP Senior Product Manager Steve Bayes literally once wrote the book on Avid. How likely is it that this singular brain trust, woodshedding for several years and dwelling on all the modern possibilities of editing, has not distilled the best, most forward-looking ideas into FCP X?

Ever since Apple’s sneak peek at FCP X during NAB in April, fears have been raised that Final Cut Pro was being dumbed-down along the ease-of-use lines of the revamped iMovie. But why would Apple create a second iMovie?

And why shouldn’t metaphors evolve? In FCP X there are no more bins (evoking film editing). Clips are imported into Events, in the spirit of iPhoto and iMovie. I learned editing in the days of tape splicing and owned real bins for hanging real film clips. But that was eons ago. Sure, it helped us early on to grasp the principles of nonlinear editing on the original Media Composer, but many of today’s FCP users weren’t even born then. Why cling to this bit of sentimentality in a file-based era?

Am I sorry that controls for scratch disks no longer exist? As a holdover from the film era, I never wanted to know what a scratch disk was in the first place.

Regarding the radically new interface with its single viewer window and alias-based management of clips, we won’t know if these are useful advances until we’ve burned a lot of midnight oil under pressure of deadlines, although it’s already clear that 64-bit is wicked fast and background rendering eliminates coffee breaks. The cursor zips through the timeline so effortlessly, “scrubbing” now seems a misnomer.

FCP 7.0.3, which looks much the same as the original FCP from 1999 — in software years, an eternity — was due a make-over anyway. What’s wrong with Apple, which pioneered use of animation in graphic user interfaces from OS X to touchscreen iPhones and iPads, injecting what it’s learned about GUI friendliness into its latest pro software?

Speaking of Adobe Premiere, I happened to view a Premiere Pro CS5.5 timeline last night on a Windows PC. Premiere Pro is also a modern, feature-rich 64-bit NLE (although I believe it retains use of 32-bit QuickTime). I was struck by the dated appearance of its interface. A background of monotone gray with zero dimensionality, all hard-edged windows with a pale pastel timeline that’s so 1990s.

Great design, like great music, is almost always foreign at first, if not disturbingly strange. You have to spend time with it. But if it is great, and if you invest your attention, it will change the way you look at the world. After using FCP X for a week, Premiere Pro looks to me like the past.

At present there is no way to translate timelines from older versions of FCP to FCP X. Setting aside the question of why you would want to do this in the first place, you will, in any case, always want to preserve a copy of FCP 7.0.3 into the future, in order to open older timelines.

Which underscores the obvious: FCP 7.0.3 is as robust and capable this morning as it was before the announcement of FCP X yesterday morning. No reason to cease making a living using it, into the foreseeable future.

FCP X will not become a protean workhorse overnight. It will take time. It guarantees an interesting ride however.

Stay tuned. I’ll have more to say about FCP X very soon.