April 30, 2012

Final Cut Pro X and the Road to Hell (and back again)
By Rick Young

This is going to be a very honest article about Final Cut Pro X. It is not anti-FCPX - nor is it trying to convince you that this is the golden future we have all been working towards. It is simply an account of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly situations which I have encountered with Apple's revamped editing software. It also looks towards a very bright future. Don't be deceived - FCPX is here to stay. This program will make massive inroads into many types of production. With the Apple machine behind it, an incredible price-point - and a world of aspiring, up and coming, and established editors, what Apple have created is going to have a major impact for a long, long time to come.

Like many, I was both optimistic and horrified in April 2011 when Apple first showed off FCPX to the world. Optimistic because many features were incredibly appealing - the Magnetic Timeline, Skimming of clips and the organizational abilities; horrified because it looked so much like iMovie, appeared to lack much of the depth of a professional app, and certainly looked like a dumbed down version of what had become a standard for professionals throughout the world. Furthermore, the level of automation which was shown for sorting out audio problems, people detection, color grading, all seemed to be, at best, designed for those who didn't know how to fix and manage these tasks for themselves.

Regardless, I was optimistic. Apple had done such an amazing job with the original Final Cut Pro, that I had faith that Apple knew what they were doing and were going to create something spectacular that would rock the editing world and redefine workflows for digital filmmakers at all levels.

The first few projects I cut went reasonably well. Aside from annoying crashes and the occasional, to often spinning beach ball, I was impressed with the speed of the application, the ability to skim through footage, sort and manage media, and to simply knock out edits, quickly, to a high standard. Further features such as being able to Batch rename clips, to keyword, label and organize media soon became indispensable tools in my workflow.

I found myself caught between Final Cut Pro X and Final Cut Pro 7 - deciding which application to use according to the immediate needs of a project. Anything Multicam went to FCP7 (this was pre-10.03), whereas, quick turnaround material went straight to X.

I liked what FCPX offered, but couldn't shake the old ways. In my mind, I determined as soon as FCPX had the feature set of 7 I would do a complete migration.

In the meantime, I edited some 10 - 12 projects for paying clients in FCPX - I was fully up to speed, able to fly around the application, and felt comfortable that this new way of working was definitely leading towards a very bright future...

10.03 was released: Multicam was with us and I felt the time was right for a complete shift.

I threw a 20,000 project at FCPX, confident that this was now ready for anything I needed to do.

Initially things went well, however, I began to experience some terrible slowdowns. My project was taking 4 - 5 minutes to open, the spinning beach ball of death was showing its ugly face more often than ever; to add text was excruciating slow, crashes were becoming more frequent.

I soldiered on determined to see the job through, however, the problems were becoming insurmountable. Simple cuts were causing freezes. I was force quitting just to get out of the hell which had enveloped my life. Fifteen minutes of footage in the Timeline and each time I quit and relaunched was now taking 8 and 9 minutes to open the project.

I have several Macs running in my facility. I moved from my Snow Leopard machine to Lion. Things were marginally better but still impossible. I was pacing around my room, waiting for FCPX to let me work. I was going out of my mind, sweating bullets, pretty much shaking at what looked and felt like total disaster. With 25 years of editing behind me this was truly the worst editing application I had ever used, yet I was in so deep there was no way out.

My 20 grand job was looking like it was going to cost me my reputation and a ton of money. The work was for a major corporate client - the kind of job you work hard to win. And I was watching everything I had worked so hard for slide to oblivion at frightening speed.

I was on the phone daily to the client - a lot of questions were being asked as to what on earth was going on. I told the client we were working at very high quality, which was true, everything was being done in ProRes HQ with loads of chromakey, graphics, and intricate effects. My explanation was "to generate work at this level takes time." The client accepted my words.

Then a total meltdown took place. I was convinced the job had turned corrupt. It took 10 - 12 minutes to open the project and I could barely do anything. My Timeline of graphics, keying, Compound Clips and many layers seemed to have melted and fused into an unworkable mess. Eventually the project did open and at this moment I made a crucial decision which saved my professional life. I had to get out of Final Cut Pro X and quick!

Every layer in the project was exported as a QuickTime file: a layer of backgrounds, a layer of clean chromakeys over green, a layer of clean graphics. Once done, I brought all the layers in the FCP7 and life was good again. I could move, I could edit, I could watch the footage and do what needed to be done.

The job got finished between 7 and X. I found that in no way were the chroma keys I was doing in 7 anywhere as clean as X. And I have some of the best chromakey plugins that money could buy for FCP7. So I built the job in 7 and again exported layers which were then recomposited in X. The job looked great - the client was happy (though somewhat distressed at the time the entire job had taken.) A 25% discount was applied to the final invoice, which is fair, as there were days wasted and lost in the crazy process that I had to go through to finish the work.

I vowed to never again touch X. I was moving to Premiere Pro or AVID - or I was going to stay with 7 until all my machines died and no equipment existed which would run the old software. As far as I was concerned X was a disaster of monumental proportions and, even though I loved much of the workflow, I reasoned this was nothing more than iMovie Pro which simply couldn't do what it was designed to do. Then a thought struck me...

There were a lot of Compound Clips in my Timeline - in fact, Compound Clips inside of Compound Clips. Perhaps I had stressed the system to the point of meltdown; perhaps by avoiding Compound Clips and particularly Compound Clips inside of Compound Clips things would be ok.

I flew to Paris for a job. Myself and another editor, a colleague who I have done countless jobs with in the past, decided to try FCPX again. My friend had been experiencing similar problems, and we really wanted to work out whether it was us, the software, or a combination of both.

The job took 2 days to shoot and a day to edit. I avoided all Compound Clips and found the process to be remarkably trouble-free. The job was edited in a fraction of the time it would normally have taken in 7 and I felt some warmth in my inner being towards FCPX returning. Usually on these jobs we shoot loads of footage and then the editor, me, works all night to deliver the job. On this occasion I was asleep by midnight, having categorized all my footage in X - up at 8am after a good nights sleep, then I had breakfast, checked out of the hotel and showed a rough-cut of the edit to the client at midday. What took less than 4 hours to edit would have previously taken 12. Things were looking up.

Then I decided to throw a million dollar job at FCPX - a massive, very important job. No - I don't get paid a million dollars to do an edit, but the scale and size of this job was huge. Five creatives on-site for 11 days, 1200 delegates at a conference flown in from many corners of the globe. I call it a million dollar job but really have no idea of the total budget. My guess is 3 - 5 million for the conference - of course the video was only one small part of the entire show: regardless, a lot of money and prestige was at stake.

By this stage we were onto Final Cut Pro X 10.04. Over 8 days of post production there were remarkably few problems. FCPX crashed 3 time over this period, with nothing lost! I cannot pin-point what caused the crashes, however, I will say the application was hammered pretty hard and I've never used another piece of software which doesn't crash occasionally.

A few observations - massive amounts of footage was filmed. At no point did the app. slow down. The file management was brilliant. With 2 cameramen onsite, one also editing, we were able to blitz through the edit and organize the content very quickly. This was essential, as each day the client would appear at a set time to check through rushes to confirm what was essential to include, and what to throw out. The ability to pre-edit and organize the footage made a huge difference. Rather than wade through massive amounts of rushes in front of the client we were able to show her the best of what was filmed up to then and cut this up finer for the final edit.

We worked with a 2 monitor display throughout the job. If anyone has used FCPX with a single monitor and lamented at the crowded screen space, then I strongly suggest you try twin monitors. This enables full-screen monitoring on one display while organizing and Skimming through media on the other; or a nice large area for working through and organizing the media on the secondary display. I will find it hard to return to a single monitor set-up.

I found the opacity and animation controls to often get in the way while working. It is way too easy to click on a clip in the Timeline and hit the little triangle when all you wanted to do was click on the clip - it would be really nice to be able to switch off the little triangle which takes you into these controls and then switch back on when needed.

The lack of an auto-save vault or equivalent strikes terror in my heart. Of course one can duplicate the project and name it as you wish, but professionals do need incremental saves. It is way too easy to accidentally perform a function or change the edit, and then wish to return to a version from an hour or even a day before. Having to manually duplicate projects, to me, is unacceptable for professional work. I also found myself rendering out QuickTimes as protection just in case the project turned corrupt.

Furthermore, even though we cloned drives, using SuperDuper, the cloned drives did not relink to media when plugged into a different Mac, to me, this is a serious deficiency which need to be addressed. For an editing system built on metadata, it is pretty essential to be able to make a reliable backup of project and media. The way around this is to media manage the project to a secondary drive - this does work reliably, though the option to clone is a must.

I only used Compound Clips sparingly - and definitely no Compound Clips inside of Compound Clips. I don't know for sure if this caused the awful issues I dealt with as described earlier while using 10.03, though I suspect it might have.

I could continue to list all of my likes and gripes, however, the big picture is what matters. Final Cut Pro X performed well on the job, under pressure, and I give it credit for this. I need to test the software on long-form work - like a thirty minute or one hour documentary. I can say with confidence that FCPX is now a permanent part of my workflow and toolset. This doesn't mean I won't use other editors - or investigate other options, though FCPX has definitely proved itself to be worthy of professional work.

So, looking back on what has followed since the initial release of FCPX, I would say that Apple has certainly upset a lot of people along the way, which doesn't mean they haven't made others happy at the same time! Arguments will rage for years as to what Apple should have done and how they should have played what has obviously been a traumatic time for the post-production community.

Regardless, the editing world will never be the same again. We now have FCPX, a capable and developing editor at an unimaginable price-point which offers unique features and ways of working. Love it or hate it, Final Cut Pro X is here to stay. Whether it gains the popularity and respect of the earlier versions of FCP remains to be seen. Regardless, do not dismiss it. The ups, the downs, the trauma and the excitement which X has brought is all part of the journey to a new future in the world of post-production.

What Apple has done has propelled the competition forward. Take a look at the new version of Premiere Pro, the amazing deals being offered by AVID, what Autodesk has done with Smoke 2013, and Lightworks (we patiently await the Mac version.) I'm excited by X and equally excited by the competition. I grew up in a world where I never dreamed I would own my own post-production system - it was prohibitively expensive. Now I can choose from a selection of editors and post-production tools like a kid in a candy shop. And I like the candy that's sits on the counter, without having to to take out a second mortgage for a taste.


Rick Young is the author of the Easy Guide to Final Cut Pro (published by Focal Press); he is also the Founder of the UK Final Cut User Group and the Founder of MacVideo.TV - Rick's involvement with MacVideo finished earlier this year and he will be launching a new project project very soon. So stay tuned for what comes next...


copyright © Rick Young 2012

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