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Smashing the System: The Birth of Final Cut Pro X

Originally written on: June 29, 2011 at 4:31 am

Last Updated: June 29, 2011 at 4:31 am


At the NAB Final Cut Pro Supermeet, the video editing world got an exciting peek into Apple’s new professional video editor Final Cut Pro X (FCPX). Dozens of people (myself included) took the small scraps of information we could, and attempted to glean additional insight into what the application would do, and what it would mean to the professional video production industry as we knew it. We saw innovative new ideas, like the magnetic timeline, compound clips, and keyword-based asset management. The promise of a magical, modern, fast non-linear editor (NLE) generated a tsunami of excitement. Ultimately, we were left with more questions than answers until last week when Apple finally unveiled its new creation.

Like any tsunami, the arrival of FCPX left devastation in its wake. Dozens of video editors on Twitter immediately dismissed the product simply as iMovie with a darker UI, and otherwise totally unfit for professional work. They cited important features of their existing workflow that were entirely lacking in the new product. They also cited features that they thought weren’t there, but in fact were, had they read the manual. The Great FCPX Whinging is still going strong on Twitter and forums, and it’s entirely counter-productive.

Folks in the industry like to say “Editing is about storytelling”. I also believe that to be true. What I am witnessing however, is not this. I’m seeing my Twitter stream flooded with apoplectic editors complaining about how a just-released tool doesn’t meet their needs, and countless regurgitations of ‘facts’ that are simply untrue. If the just-released tool doesn’t meet your needs, don’t use it. It really is that simple. The products you were using last week are still running, and you know them well. If you’re in the middle of a project, you shouldn’t change tools anyway. Some worry about future support for FCP7. Yes, eventually Apple will stop supporting the product (they have already stopped selling it), but that’s in the future. In the now, you have deadlines. Worry about meeting them. Smart editors will take the time to learn this new product at the ground floor, so when it is ready for their workflow, they can integrate it. When that time comes, those editors will work faster than the competition, still learning how to make new bins (hint: keywords are the new bin).

FCPX is best thought of as a totally new product. Don’t think of it as Final Cut Pro Ten, think of it as Final Cut Pro X version 1.0. No one gave up their Avid rigs when the original Final Cut Pro hit the scene. Instead, they continued to use the tools that allowed them to tell their stories.

Let’s have less emo whinging, and more great storytelling.




10 Responses to “Smashing the System: The Birth of Final Cut Pro X”

  1. Kevin Murray says:

    Are you a professional editor?

    • CM Harrington says:

      Yes, I still edit professionally, although it’s not what I do 40+ hours a week anymore. Mostly educational videos, and videos for a well-known research company in CT.

  2. Kevin Murray says:

    Cool, I couldn’t tell from your self-description. And is/was FCP your main tool?

    As a full-time FCP editor who has talked to a lot of fellow editors about this topic, I think the basic feeling is one of Apple disrespecting the traditions and needs of pro editors. When so many features are “left on the cutting room floor” or changed drastically without consideration for a vast and complex skill-set that people use to make their living on a daily basis and the company acts like they’re simply releasing a new and improved version of existing software without acknowledging the disruption this new software will create, that seems disrespectful.

    I think you’re right that this should be considered a Version 1.0… why didn’t Apple simply give it a new name and call it MoviePro 1.0 or something? If they said, “Hey, we’re discontinuing this out-of-date software and releasing a new program that will seem somewhat familiar but is not the same but better in many ways”, I think editors would have been bummed and bitched a bit but accepted it far more smoothly. 

    From a business standpoint, Apple is trying to hold onto a valuable brand, but a brand that is now tarnished because of all of the missing features. Yes, many/most/all of these features will return eventually but in the meantime… it’s just not a pro application. Lack of multicam and OMF export alone are enough for many businesses to not even consider using the new app. I know an entire network that won’t “upgrade” because they have so many legacy projects that they need access to.

    [Some of the new features also reveal a distinct lack of understanding of the editing profession. Automatic organization by two-shots and singles? Who would even organize that way? It seems like some engineer got excited by his facial recognition software and wanted to show off.]

    Storytelling for film and television has become a sophisticated and time-sensitive operation. When a company wants to phase out a tool that is widely used in that operation, it’s not just a matter of “manning-up”… you’re talking thousands of lost hours of productivity while people retrain.

    I’m sure that once Apple works out all of the kinks and replaces the missing features and FCPX matures a bit, I’ll make the switch. I’ll probably try to learn it even while it’s still stumbling along. But I believe they deserve all of the complaints because they handled this more like the release of a new iPod and not like a tool that people have spent years honing their skills on.

    • CM Harrington says:

      Also, I do think that Apple is onto something with regard to their new pricing model. This, much like the original FCP, makes professional quality editing available to more people (I’m thinking mainly of students, and people thinking they want to become editors here), which will force the competition to react. Price was a HUGE factor in getting people using FCP. Prior to that, you were shelling out several tens of thousands of dollars for a low-end Avid rig. Now with FCPX being $300, and usable on a Macbook Air (of all things!), you’ve got a potentially (I say that as it’s still half baked) killer setup.

    • CM Harrington says:

      Kevin, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I use FCP quite a bit, but I also use Media Composer a good 40% of the time. I prefer FCP, but there are some things that can more easily be done (for my workflow) in MC, and I use the tool that’s best for the job. One thing I never do is swap tools, as that’s just a load of wasted time that I don’t have.

      I think we’re in agreement with a lot of what you’re stating. A few things however, I think we slightly differ, or perhaps simply see in a different way:Re-training: Re-training is/should be a perpetual cycle. Before FCP, people used Avid or higher-end turnkey systems and had to be re-trained when they decided to switch to FCP. None of them did it overnight, but because FCP was a small fraction of the cost (IIRC, about 1/10th) of those systems, most post houses purchased a couple of licenses to try it out for a spin. As a professional, part of our job is to understand our craft, and use the tools that are at our disposal. In general, I don’t turn down good money, and I’d have to do that if I said I couldn’t edit in Avid, or couldn’t edit in FCP. Just recently, I re-learned Adobe Premiere 5/5.5 because it had a DSLR/RED workflow that FCP only just now got with FCPX (and is still missing RED for the moment). Of course, you want to train on a tool that has something to offer. Today, I think FCPX has many things to offer a professional editor (magnetic timeline, compound clips, media management) that will make their lives much easier going forward once they get out of the old headspace. However, the app is half-baked, and not ready for broadcast (and other) workflows. That prevents me, you, and quite a few others from jumping ship. Of course, no one jumped ship at FCP 1.0 either. It wasn’t until FCP 3 where it even *started* becoming viable (IIRC, Cold Mountain was done on a custom version of FCP3 with a lot of pre-release features of FCP4). 

      As far as Apple as a business, we can’t know why they chose to release FCPX now, with a limited useful feature-set. If they say (and they have) we’ll get RED, multicam, and XML by the end of the year, why not just give us FCPX in December? It’s a totally new tool, no one *needs* to upgrade, so why not bake those features in? It still doesn’t make sense to me why they did that, but the fact is they did, and now we have an opportunity to play around with it, while still doing our paying gigs in editors we know well, and work for our needs.

    • CM Harrington says:

      Sorry about the reply-date screw-up… I thought I was replying to your comment, but it seems it entered as a separate thread (corrected), and now my followup is showing up 1st. Oops.

  3. Kevin Murray says:

    I was also working as an Avid MC editor when FCP was taking baby steps and was able to convince my company to build a small Final Cut system around version 3. But because of all of the similarities (ahem) between Avid and Final Cut, I never felt like I was really learning a new editing system the way I might have if I’d switched to discreet edit* or something.

    In some ways, I feel like FCPX is more different than FCP7 than FCP3 was from MC1000. FCP was never a reinvention of the concept of non-linear editing which Avid pioneered and in it I could still recognize the icons and methods that I’d learned while cutting film on a flatbed. I could be wrong, but my sense is that the engineers of FCPX, for better or worse, have lost the sense of connection to the basic origins of film editing. I won’t know how true this is until I play with it and I also won’t know how bad that possibility bodes for the app. Maybe they really have considered all of the options and made only great choices but given that they released (as you put it) a half-baked app, I’m not feeling a lot of faith in this team right now.

    Hopefully Apple will prove all of the fears wrong soon as they quickly update the app. I think that for years, many people in post have wondered how much Apple cares about the FCP suite. Given the discontinued support of Final Cut Server, the lackluster integration and performance/design of Motion, the discontinuation of Soundtrack, the lack of investment in the Color UI, etc., I think it’s not surprising that everyone is a little suspicious and then this comes along and it’s like “I knew it!!! You never loved me!!!”

    I’m all for the lower price as I’ve had a pirated copy of FCP or two in my day (for non-commercial home projects) and would rather have the legit copy and support. Lowering the bar for access to professional tools has another price, though… most freelancers I know who have worked since the 90’s have seen their rates decrease. This goes for both camera and post and many attribute it to a glut of people who can afford to buy prosumer equipment and then call themselves a camera operator or editor. At the same time, I’d say some of the standards for what is acceptable camera work and cutting have decreased, probably to accommodate the less-experienced talent. But maybe it’s just a general economic trend of companies getting stingier and audiences desiring sloppier media… who knows.

    How is Premiere 5.5? Every time I hear Premiere is suddenly amazing, I try it out and it still feels like a kid’s toy. Maybe I just don’t like the interface but the last version I gave a shot seemed to be lacking a ton of features.

    • CM Harrington says:

      Rate decreases are also normal over time. We’re always asked to do more for less. Competition is everywhere both domestically and overseas. We can differentiate ourselves through really great customer service, and ultra-high quality output. Ultimately the marketing analyst wonk may have the tools, but they don’t know how to use them effectively. I’m sure you’ve taken jobs from clients that involve fixing their attempt to do it themselves, or otherwise on the cheap. I’ve found simply being available gives my clients a feeling of security. 
      FCP7 does/will work in Lion  (10.7.x), so for the moment, I’m not too worried about everything going to hell in a hand-basket. I do however, think that the lack of DSLR workflow in FCP7 makes my life far more tedious than needed, so I really would rather use a tool that works in that regard. 

      That’s where Premiere 5.5 comes in. I’m not going to kid and say I love the product. In fact, I think the UI is one of the most abstruse and annoying (Color-level annoying) I’ve seen. It does however, have an engine that is specifically tuned to the needs of a DSLR editor. For an increasing number of my projects, that’s exactly what I need. I also love the round-tripping to AE (whose UI I also despise), although even that can get a little wonky. Round trip too much, and strange shit starts to happen. FWIW, I’ve always loathed the Avid UI as well. 

      They all smack of a UI specifically designed to be difficult, in order to raise the barrier of entry — a form of security through obscurity. FCP took the basic concept of an NLE and gave us a much better UI, but it wasn’t really pushing the boundaries of what could be done. FCPX is much more forward thinking in that regard. Yes, it’s *very* different from what we have been brought up on, but I do think that it’s headed in the right direction. I also think they should re-look at some of their design choices. For example, while I can ‘fake’ a Viewer window (hint: change the events to List mode, and set the thumbnails to be as gigantic as it can be), it’s not *quite* a true Viewer, and I still find a Viewer to be useful. While difficult to grasp at first, once you wrap your head around the idea of sub-clips and binning to be simply keyword metadata, a whole new world of easy organisation opens up. While I wouldn’t actually kill to have that feature in another NLE, I’d really appreciate the competition stepping up.

      • Kevin Murray says:

        In still searching for more details on FCPX (without putting down money for a product that I’m not quite convinced by), I read this review that seems “fair and balanced” to borrow a phrase from an unbalanced news network:

        From what I’m reading, the lack of precise trimming in a viewer is almost enough to make me jump ship and I don’t think that’s going to change. So far, I see the timeline “innovations” as mostly regressive, the integration with Motion as clunky as ever (but in new, exciting ways!) and the Events-style organization a step back. I’m sure I can adapt but I don’t want to learn workarounds… I want software designed for professionals that makes sense out of the box. Was something broken with binning? Maybe I missed the part where that was an awful hindrance to my creativity.

        The last couple of paragraphs of that review definitely sum up the feeling I’ve been getting about the software… maybe Apple will step up and re-integrate pro features or but probably this is just another iPod release to them. Maybe eventually editors will need to know a different app for different kinds of projects (like Premiere for DSLR) but it’s a shame that Apple had a chance to have the one editor that fits all and I think they’ve lost it. 

        I really don’t think either Avid or Premiere were designed to create a barrier… you have to remember how old these apps are and the state of UI design in the early 1990s. I actually like the After Effects interface (makes way more sense to me than Motion) and I like Avid as well but part of that may be that I’ve used both of them off and on for almost 15 years now. 

        Avid created their UI to meet the needs of professional film editors and when I first used it, I found it could do almost everything I needed. It’s not intuitive but compared to working on a Steenbeck it sure felt easy and flexible.

        The nice thing about Avid is that they have always aimed at the pros first and their slow adoption of new technology was because they did extensive testing to make sure their systems were stable. That devotion to stability (and the high price tag that came with their proprietary hardware) may have been what killed them as FCP would run on the latest OS and fastest computers. And once they tried to compete with Apple against an Apple product that runs so well on Apple computers, the writing was on the wall.

        While jumping back into Avid MC might feel like putting on an old glove for me, I may have to give Premiere a chance again simply because their Production Suite is probably the best deal going for overall quality software (and it’s half-off for people switching from FCP).

        • CM Harrington says:

          I may need to start a new thread, as these columns are getting smaller and smaller. Perhaps I just change the layout so comments are the full-width. Hmm. My posts seem to have deep threads.

          As for precision, you *do* have frame-accurate ins and outs without going to the precision editor. The nice thing about the PE is that it shows your ‘handles’ (unused frames) ghosted on either side of the cut, so you can see what you’re rolling/cutting/etc into. That isn’t shown on the normal timeline, but you can get at it just the same if you don’t care about your handles. 

          Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who either haven’t used the product, or make assumptions based on appearance. Those are the vocal ones, drowning out more level-headed folk who have tried to understand the new way of working.

          As for FCP7’s binning? Yeah, that did/does in fact blow goats. The new way of doing it *really is* more powerful, but you have to use it to understand. Imagine clips being able to be in multiple bins because they can be classified in different ways. They’re like “smart playlists” or “smart folders” in iTunes or I use such smart collections extensively in every app that has them. I *LOVE* the power and flexibility it has without the problems of duplicating clips, or worse, losing them because you dumped them into the wrong bin. In fact, I’d jump for joy if Adobe and Avid adopted the concept. 

          As for the UI, in addition to what I’ve already stated on the subject, I’d say that Avid/Adobe/FCP7/Media100/Vegas/etc/etc all used a similar UI because they copied the First Mover, which in turn copied the exact hardware UI of the dual-deck system which was OK for the hardware and the time, but now we have computers that can do *so* much more. Let the computer do the heavy lifting. 

          I really do hope you get to give the app a spin. You really shouldn’t take anyone’s word for anything on this subject. Ultimately, it’ll do what you need it to do, or it won’t. It *will* however, be different. The question is, do you wish to invest the time in learning a new tool that may make your life easier?