I’ve gotta say, the amount of hay that has been made in the past week and a half about Final Cut Pro X completely caught me off guard. When Apple demoed the new version of its venerable nonlinear editing software at NAB in April, it looked like the answer to the prayers of every Final Cut editor; now it seems like experienced Final Cut editors have all but eviscerated it.
Now I will absolutely agree that Apple mishandled the release of Final Cut Pro X. The only thing that this new application shares with the old Final Cut Pro is its name; this is a completely new application, rewritten from the ground up to rethink what a nonlinear video editor should be. But that doesn’t mean that Apple should have immediately dropped all support and sales of Final Cut Studio. (And as someone who was just about to start adopting Final Cut Server full-time, I’m completely bewildered about why that app was also EOL’d. But I digress.)
Nevertheless, I installed Final Cut Pro X and pulled up some unfinished Tech tAUk episode footage to force myself to put the new app through its paces. I deleted my old Final Cut Studio installation before I installed FCPX. I do not recommend uninstalling Final Cut Studio if you have it so that you can continue to fall back on the old program if you need to; unfortunately I had limited hard drive space and I wanted to really test the capabilities of this new program.
I have spent many hours over the past week working to recreate my typical workflow in Final Cut Pro X. I had to unlearn and re-learn a lot of things that I had grown accustomed to from Final Cut Pro 7, but I was successful; a feat that I certainly could not have accomplished in iMovie. So for this review, I’m going to focus on recapping everything that I’ve learned in my mental transition from FCP7 to FCPX.
Goodbye Capture Scratch, Hello Events and Projects
If there’s one thing that has most been inspired by iMovie, it’s the way that Final Cut Pro now manages your projects and your media. Final Cut Pro X now fully adopts the Event Library and Project Library systems that iMovie uses to manage your ingested media and your timelines. But let’s set iMovie aside and compare this to Final Cut Pro 7.
Previously in FCP, every time you opened the program the responsible thing to do was go into System Settings and set the locations of your Capture Scratch, Autosave Vault, Thumbnail Cache, and Waveform Cache. You had to do this to make sure your media and metadata didn’t get mixed with someone else’s stuff. And, doing this created about seven different folders in your designated scratch disk that Final Cut used for storing stuff. All that in addition to your own media, which you also had to be responsible for.
So while the Event and Project Libraries may seem weird to Final Cut veterans, I’ve actually found them to be a lot less chaotic. By default, Final Cut Pro X creates two folders in your local Movies folder: Final Cut Events and Final Cut Projects. And that’s it; those two folders essentially become your scratch disks. Much less chaotic than the clutter of folders created before. But most editors prefer to keep their media on an external hard drive, but that’s not a problem. Final Cut lets you browse all of the events and projects on all of your connected hard drives. Everything on an external hard drive is similarly stored within one Final Cut Events and/or Final Cut Projects folder.
Ultimately what this means is that you don’t have to pre-set your scratch disk anymore (or worry about forgetting to do so) since you can simply pick your preferred disk directly within the FCPX interface. Your events and projects on your external drive can travel with you, and you can manage and delete no-longer needed content directly within Final Cut Pro X. I personally find this to be a big plus.
So What Are Events, Keywords, and Projects?
An “event” is really nothing more than a container for all the media associated with a project–ingested, imported, or otherwise. It’s similar to how you would typically dump all of your media for a project into the Browser in FCP7. But unlike FCP7, events are completely independent of your projects, so you can have media for multiple projects in one event, or vice-versa.
However, the concept of “bins” from FCP7 is gone. Instead, Final Cut encourages you to organize your media using keyword collections, which lets you assign keywords to your media. Your list of keywords then appears in the source browser of the Event Library, so you can kind of use them like bins. In my test project, I didn’t have any use for a bunch of descriptive keywords, so I simply created keyword collections called “broll,” “source,” “sound,” “graphics,” etc. and dragged all my media to the applicable keyword, which very easily replicated the use of bins from FCP7.
Of course, keywords can be much more powerful than this, since you can assign multiple keywords to clips, and you can even assign keywords to portions of clips rather than the clip itself. Final Cut Pro X also provides very visible buttons that let you mark clips (or portions thereof) as good/favorites, or mark them as rejections.
A “project,” as you’d expect, is where you actually edit your media into a finished video. But there is one significant difference from Final Cut Pro 7: In FCP7, one project could have multiple sequences within it; i.e. for multiple separate timelines within the same related project. This is no longer the case in FCPX: a project only has one timeline. However you can create a folder of related projects in the Project Library to replicate the old behavior. So for a typical episode of Tech tAUk, in FCP7 I would have had five sequences in one project. Now in FCPX, I have five projects in one folder.
The Event Library lives in the upper-left of the Final Cut Pro interface. It can’t be completely closed, but its source browser can be hidden. The Project Library lives in the bottom-half of the interface; when a project is opened, it becomes the location of the timeline. The video viewer (there’s now only one of them) lives in the upper-right of the window. This interface is indeed much like iMovie’s, though unlike iMovie you can’t swap the Event and Project Library locations with a cool swoopy effect.
Importing Media into the Event Library
Final Cut Pro won’t let you do anything until you’ve created at least one event, and at least one event must always exist. I find this kind of stupid, so I have an event called “Generic” that I simply intend to always leave empty.
Final Cut Pro X has limited support for tape-based imports (which I didn’t test), but importing from a file-based camera is fairly straightforward. Choosing the Import from Camera option (Command-I) initially shows yourself via your computer’s iSight/FaceTime camera, but if your camera is connected to your computer it shows up in a source list. SD cards are not immediately recognized in the Camera Import window; instead you need to click on the Open Archive button on the bottom of the window to select your SD card. Once your media appears, you can import all of your footage or you can set in & out points of clips to import using Apple’s trademark filmstrip/skimming view. When importing, you are prompted to either add the footage to an existing event, or create a new event for the footage on one of your attached hard drives.
If you’re not ingesting media from a camera, you can also do a file-based import. Final Cut Pro X gives you the same import options as from a camera, but you also have two other options: you can tell Final Cut to copy your source media to the Final Cut Events folder, or you can simply have Final Cut Pro reference your existing media where it is (like FCP7 would do), leaving you responsible for managing it. If you have folders of media to import, Final Cut Pro can create keyword collections for those folders.
One of the powerful new features in Final Cut Pro X is Content Auto-Analysis, where Final Cut performs a lot of automated analyses and fixes to your footage while importing it. These include transcoding options, letting you create optimized and/or proxy media (based on ProRes 422, which Final Cut loves to work with), removing video pulldown, analyzing for stabilization and rolling shutter, analyzing for color balance, and identifying people in shots. Final Cut can also create smart keyword collections so that you can find unstable shots and/or shots with different numbers of people in them.
But my favorite part of this the audio features, where you can have Final Cut analyze and fix audio problems, separate mono and group stereo audio, and remove silent channels. One of our biggest challenges at ATV has been footage with audio problems, but Final Cut automatically fixed every one of the audio issues with my footage.
Of course, not all footage is the same, and not all footage needs the full royal treatment, so Final Cut lets you individually enable or disable each of these auto-analysis features on a per-import basis. Best of all, imports are now a background task. You can start editing immediately after you click the Import button; Final Cut Pro uses the original footage off your camera/SD card while you edit until the import is completed in the background.
Using the Event Library
The process is a bit different, but getting media into your project is still pretty much the same as before. Your Event Library is available in two views: a filmstrip view, where all of your footage is shown as filmstrips with resizable thumbnails that you can skim through with your mouse, or a list view, where you can select a clip and view a single-line filmstrip.
You can still mark in and out points for your footage with I and O as before, or by selecting a region of the filmstrip with your mouse. However skimming can actually make the process of finding your in and out points a bit quicker, once you get the hang of it. Once you select your footage, you can drag it into the timeline of your project, or use one of three toolbar buttons to import the footage.
Understanding the Trackless Magnetic Timeline
The new timeline in Final Cut Pro X is a really big deal. It throws away every single rule about how a timeline is supposed to work. But once you get past the initial shock, you really do begin to realize just how powerful it is.
New Rule #1: there is no such thing as “tracks” anymore. In the old Final Cut Pro, the timeline contained tracks where you would add audio and video, and multiple tracks could be used to create multiple layers of audio and video. There was a visible divider across the middle of the timeline; video always lived above the divider, audio always lived below it. Final Cut Pro X, instead, has the concept of a “storyline.” But comparing storylines to tracks is like comparing apples to oranges.
First off, clips that have both video and audio are no longer split apart; they are now treated as one single entity. What you see is a single blue clip with filmstrip thumbnails and audio waveforms integrated right below it. Video clips with no audio look the same (sans waveforms). Audio clips with no video are green with waveforms, but don’t be fooled, they are equal citizens with the video clips. It is totally possible to have audio and video side-by-side as though they were in the same “track”, or even to have audio attached above video in the timeline (blasphemy!).
So Final Cut starts you out with one “primary storyline,” which you can recognize as the black stripe going across the middle of what would otherwise be a grey-colored timeline. Your main video elements go in here, and Final Cut automatically snaps everything together; you don’t have to snap everything in place yourself. If you add secondary objects, such as another layer of video, titles, or perhaps a soundtrack or other sound effects, those can appear above or below the primary storyline, and are visibly attached to a clip in the primary storyline with a line showing the attachment. Apple calls this feature “Clip Connections,” and it means that if you shift around elements in your primary storyline, the connected clips come along for the ride and stay right in sync.
The added bonus of the Magnetic Timeline is that because there is no such thing as tracks, these secondary elements will not collide with each other, as they would in Final Cut Pro 7. Final Cut Pro X just pushes elements out of the way to avoid any collision. As an editor, this isn’t always the desired effect, but 98% of the time it’s a real lifesaver.
Of course, one concern is that the formation of Clip Connections is not optional, and they’re not customizable. Sometimes you have a second layer of clips that are related to each other, and it’s more important that they stay together in order, not that they stay attached to whatever is below them in the primary storyline. If that’s the case, just select the clips in question and go Command-G; this creates another storyline for those clips, and replaces each of their individual clip connections to the primary storyline with just one clip connection connecting the new secondary storyline to the primary one.
The last major feature of the Final Cut Pro X timeline is Compound Clips. Often times, I have a number of different elements–backgrounds, b-roll, titles, etc.–that work together to form a particular portion of my project. Once I have them in place, I can select them, type Option-G, and Final Cut Pro combines these into a single Compound Clip. Not only does this reduce the visual clutter in the timeline, but it lets me perform actions on the clip as a whole. For example I can create a fade in/fade out of a B-Roll shot in a Tech tAUk episode by applying it once to the full compound clip rather than to each individual element. Double-clicking a compound clip opens the contents of just that clip in the timeline, so I can still edit its components if needed.
The basic navigation of the timeline hasn’t changed much. The timeline does inherit the ‘skimming’ feature from iMovie, which is useful but takes a bit of getting used to. For example, while your mouse is hovering over the timeline, pressing the spacebar starts playback from where your mouse is, not where the playhead is. (Option-Space starts playback from the playhead.) Also clicking anywhere in the timeline repositions the playhead there, not just clicking in the timecode strip across the top. But you are still able to zoom in and out of the timeline, although I found the new Timeline Index–which you can pop open to the left of the timeline–to be quite useful.
You can toggle skimming with the S key. If skimming is on, you can also toggle audio skimming (like scrubbing) with Shift-S. Final Cut also lets you solo an audio clip with Option-S, and the toggle for Snapping is still there with the usual N key. There are a few changes to the assortment of tools. Select (A), Blade (B), Zoom (Z), and Hand (H) are still present. New to the party are Trim (T), Position (P), and Range Selection (R). A few others have clearly been dropped.
Some tools have been replaced by a nice feature inherited from iMovie called the In-Line Precision Editor. This feature lets you double-click on an edit point in the timeline, and the clips on either side of the edit pull apart from each other and expand to show the additional source media from both clips on either side of the edit. From within this view, you can skim and scrub and then single-click on a new edit point to recut the edit, or you can drag a handle in-between the clips to roll the edit. When you’re done, just hit the Esc key to close out of that view.
Media & Effects Browsers
Borrowing a cue from iMovie, Final Cut includes a number of browsers for various media, and it also provides a lot of pre-built Apple templates. (Actually, the templates don’t come with Final Cut Pro X itself. After you install Final Cut Pro X from the Mac App Store, you should run Apple Software Update to install these extras.)
- The first is the Effects Browser, which allows you to apply a lot of effects to your videos. These range from fun effects to useful ones, i.e. color and luma keys, masks, broadcast safe, etc. The pane also includes various audio effects.
- Second is a Photo Browser, letting you browse your iPhoto, Aperture, and Photo Booth libraries, if you want to add a slideshow. (With, of course, the opportunity to apply the Ken Burns Effect.)
- Third is the Music and Sound Browser, which not only gives you access to your iTunes and GarageBand libraries, but also gives you access to a variety of sound effects included with Final Cut Pro, as well as iLife Sound Effects that come with your Mac.
- Fourth is the Transitions browser, which has a very wide variety of really nice transitions. (Far superior to the supply offered in Final Cut Pro 7.)
- Fifth is the Titles browser, which also has a plethora of stylized titles. If you’re looking for just a plain text element that you can stylize and keyframe yourself, choose the “Custom” title.
- Sixth is simply called Generators, which lets you apply any other non-specific motion graphics effects to your project.
- And seventh is Themes. Again borrowing a page from iMovie, Final Cut Pro comes with fourteen different Apple-designed theme elements that include transitions and titles. Some of these are clearly borrowed from iMovie (like News and Sports) while others are unique to Final Cut, except unlike iMovie you have a lot more control over their placement and use.
However almost every one of these Apple-designed elements were designed in Motion, and if you have Motion 5 installed, you can open a copy of them in Motion and modify them to your liking. You can also create your own Motion templates and add them to this browser. For more, read my review of Motion 5.
Video Editing Features
Final Cut Pro does have an Inspector that pops out in the upper-right of the window, either by clicking its toolbar button or doing Command-4. Final Cut’s Inspector functions more like Motion’s Inspector has, which means it’s a lot more functional than in FCP7. However Apple has done its best to let you do a lot of your editing without requiring the Inspector.
The three most-common video editing operations in Final Cut Pro that have required the Inspector have been Transform (moving, rotating, or resizing video), Crop, and Distort. Final Cut Pro X places buttons for each of these three operations below the viewer, which lets you use the mouse to perform these tasks directly in the viewer. And another common task that has required the Inspector has been editing titles; but Final Cut Pro lets you edit titles directly in the viewer now as well. Although in my usage, editing titles in the viewer has been really sluggish, and challenging to select the correct text placeholder. Your mileage may vary.
If you want to perform more specific animations, you can actually do this directly in the timeline by selecting the clip and doing Control-V; this brings up the Video Animation Editor right above the clip. This lets you quickly view and adjust keyframes for a number of common effects on a clip or even enable/disable them entirely. The Opacity animation actually provides you with handles at the beginning and end of the clip, which you can use to add fades in/out of a clip really easily without the need to add keyframes.
Final Cut Pro X also makes it so much easier than FCP7 to retime clips. A dedicated Retime menu in the toolbar gives you instant access to a number of common timing adjustments, as well as some special timing effects such as Rewind and Instant Replay. Or you can also open up a Retiming Editor in the timeline (Command-R) to make custom timing edits to your clips. I found this feature to be an enormous improvement over Final Cut Pro 7.
Clips with both video and audio don’t have to stay married together if you want to make specific edits to the audio. When you’re adding clips from an event, Final Cut lets you switch between importing Both (Option-1), Video Only (Option-2), or Audio Only (Option-3). If your video and audio is out of sync, you can open the clip as its own element in the timeline to fix the issue (right-click -> Open In Timeline). You can make really easy J-cuts and L-cuts by expanding the video and audio (Control-S), or you can separate the video and audio completely into two separate clips (Control-Shift-S).
Editors who were big fans of Color will probably feel limited by Final Cut Pro X’s color grading features, but they are a significant improvement over the Color Corrector filters in FCP7. Final Cut Pro X can attempt to automatically balance colors, which can provide a great (though not always perfect) start towards improving your footage. For further grading, Final Cut Pro X replaces the traditional color wheel with a color board, which I do find to be a bit unusual, but eventually you get the hang of it. Nevertheless the tools are there to adjust color, saturation, and exposure for each of the big three scopes: whites, blacks, and midtones. Color correction is live and very responsive compared to FCP7, and Final Cut does make it possible to perform multiple independent color corrections.
The Match Color feature is a really powerful feature that makes it really easy to perfect a look in one clip and automatically apply it to your other clips to provide much more consistent visuals. This is particularly useful for outdoor shots that may have inconsistent white balance or other haphazard color issues–though again, not always perfect depending on the quality of your source footage.
Finally, Final Cut includes the core elements of Soundtrack Pro for enhancing and fixing issues with audio. An Audio Enhancements Inspector shows the results of Final Cut Pro’s auto-analysis for audio problems, such as loudness, background noise, and hum. There is an Auto Enhance button for Final Cut to attempt to make fixes for you, but those fixes are worth reviewing. I had a video that had some hum in it, however the Hum Removal setting caused the speaker to sound like he was taking into a tin can. I instead disabled the Hum Removal and used the Background Noise Removal to reduce the presence of the hum. But again, depending on the quality of your source audio, your mileage may vary.
A Word on Rendering
Ask any Final Cut Pro veteran what the most annoying part of their workflow is, and they’ll tell you: rendering. Well, the endlessly annoying “Writing Video” box and status bar is gone in Final Cut Pro X, as rendering is now a background process. But that doesn’t mean it’s something to never think about.
FCPX shows an orange stripe above the timeline over sections of your project that need to be rendered. Unlike FCP7, Final Cut Pro X will actually attempt to playback unrendered video in realtime, but in my experience the playback dropped significant numbers of frames in all but the most basic of unrendered animations. Of course this will vary depending on your computer’s graphics card, RAM, and processor, and on the size/quality of your source media, but the point remains that rendered media plays back better.
By default, Final Cut will automatically render your unrendered footage as a background process whenever it finds a free moment to do so. If you stop working for a little bit (by default, 5 seconds), switch apps, or whatever, the rendering kicks right in behind the scenes. Rendering always stops when you’re playing back video.
In my experience, I found this to be a gift as well as a curse. While it meant that I could keep on working on other edits, sometimes the background rendering would slow my computer down a bit. And if I had a lot of unrendered clips, the renderer would render my clips in chronological order, even if I needed another clip rendered first.
However, the old Render All and Render Selection menu items still exist (new keyboard shortcuts Control-Shift-R and Control-R, respectively). And it is possible to turn off automatic rendering in Final Cut Pro’s preferences, so that only you can tell Final Cut what and when to render. Even then, rendering still is handled as a background task. In short: you may still want to wait at times for Final Cut to do its rendering, but at least it’ll be less often and more on your own terms.
Also, one benefit of Final Cut Pro’s Event/Project Libraries is that render files are not as easy to lose; they are stored within the “Final Cut Projects” folder and won’t be deleted unless you delete your whole project. Furthermore, Final Cut Pro X autosaves all of your projects all of the time, so forgetting to save is no longer of concern. And I found that this really works; even when Final Cut Pro X occasionally crashed, I’d reopen it to find my project right where I’d left off.
Gestures and Keyboard Shortcuts
Apple loves multi-touch gestures these days, and they have advertised a couple of gestures for navigating through the timeline if you’re on a MacBook or have a Magic Trackpad. Of course you can scroll the timeline back and forth (or up and down) with two fingers, but another very useful gesture is swiping with three fingers, which lets you move the playhead back-and-forth between edit points by swiping left and right, or moving it directly to the beginning or end of the timeline, by swiping up and down.
However I was unable to get two other gestures to work at all. Apple says that you should be able to pinch to zoom in and out of the timeline, or to rotate your fingers left or right to scrub the playhead, but I wasn’t able to get these to work. Even then, I’d probably prefer to stick to keyboard shortcuts for those anyway.
Speaking of which, Final Cut Pro X does have a large swath of new keyboard shortcuts to learn, although the core basics for navigation and basic editing remain mostly the same. But I do recommend getting familiar with the new shortcuts, or else modifying the existing ones to suit your own needs. Final Cut Pro X comes with a pretty nice Command Editor (access it in the Final Cut Pro menu -> Commands -> Customize, or Option-Command-K) so you can modify the existing commands, change command sets, or create your own command sets. Of course the one that I wanted to change was one that I couldn’t find: I long for the ability to toggle title/action safe zones with a key command.
Watching, Exporting and Sharing Your Projects
Final Cut Pro X finally provides the ability to expand the viewer to fullscreen, although I wish that it would provide rollover playback controls the way QuickTime does, rather than none at all. But one nice thing about Final Cut Pro X is that you can play back and even skim through your projects in the Project Library; no need to open them first.
All exporting settings exist in the new Share menu, and there are a wide variety to choose from. Of course you can do a basic QuickTime export (Command-E), or export just the audio, save the current frame, or export an image sequence. For more export settings you can send your movie to Compressor. Final Cut Pro X requires Compressor 4 ($49.99 on the Mac App Store), but unfortunately Compressor 4 is virtually the same as the Compressor 3.5 that came before it. Compressor 4 is still 32-bit (hint: it’s slow!) with the old interface, and has very few new features. But it is there, and Compressor settings can be exported back to Final Cut Pro X if you so choose.
But Final Cut Pro X has a lot more sharing options as well, with instant export & upload to YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, and CNN iReport. You can burn a basic DVD or Blu-ray disc right in Final Cut, no iDVD or DVD Studio Pro required (although the menu settings are a bit limited). If you’re in an OS X Server environment, you can send your project to Podcast Producer. You can also prepare the video to be sent in an e-mail (good luck with that), save it to your computer’s Media Browser, or send it to iTunes optimized for an iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, or Mac/PC. Final Cut handles nearly all of the rendering/exporting/uploading/etc. as a background task, and the export sheets also provide a nice little area for you to skim through your movie to preview it.
Final Cut Pro X is a completely new beast when it comes to nonlinear video editing. With this release, Apple is doing exactly what it did when it replaced iMovie HD with iMovie ’08 four years ago: it’s staking a claim in the future of video editing with a radically new product offering that makes tremendous advances over the previous generation, even if it initially fails to bring all of the beloved features of the old forward.
Yes, Final Cut Pro X can’t import Final Cut Pro 7 projects, but I think that it totally makes sense. FCPX is a completely different product with a completely different architecture; importing existing FCP7 projects into this application would probably make them harder to work with than just starting out from scratch. Which is why I recommend keeping both versions of Final Cut Pro installed (if possible) for a few more years until you’re fully ready to make the transition.
If I printed out this review that I’ve written, it would span about nine pages, and that’s just from discussing the features that I’ve had the chance to encounter and work with. I know that some reviewers on the Mac App Store have dubbed this as “iMovie Pro,” but believe me, this is not the case. Yes, there are a number of key features missing or that have limited hardware/third-party support, chief among them being multicam editing. But this is essentially a 1.0 product, and there will be updates forthcoming to fix bugs and re-add these features. (Probably after OS X Lion comes out, so that the Mac App Store update won’t come in at another 1.3 GB download.)
I have spent a week pushing myself to grow accustomed to Final Cut Pro X. It took a bit of time to get there, but now I can say that if I am given the choice, I will choose Final Cut Pro X over Final Cut Pro 7 every time. I look forward to getting to know it even better in the coming weeks.