So is Final Cut Pro X finally ready for pros?
Apple released Final Cut Pro X version 10.0.1 on September 20. Highlights include XML import and export, enhanced control over the export of audio and video files, Xsan integration, and GPU-accelerated export, as well as a downloadable trial version. I looked at the new features and quickly discovered that all that glitters is not gold, though there are some valuable nuggets in the release, particularly relating to performance. At the end of this article, I’ll post a list of features that I consider essential for professional use so we can track Apple’s progress over time.
Let’s start with the update process. Most users should be able to update via the Mac App Store. However, a certain lucky few, myself included, won’t see the Update option for Final Cut Pro X, either in the App Store or in the Software Update process. This is a known bug, and the solution is to drag the 10.0 installation into the trash and reinstall the latest version from the App store, which will be 10.0.1. This added about 40 minutes to my update. If you have the same issue, check out the thread here  for more details on its resolution.
Once I was up and running, the first feature I checked out was XML import and export, which is critical because it allows Final Cut Pro editors to edit their projects with different tools. However, in this case, XML support does NOT mean the ability to work with Final Cut Pro 7 projects, at least not right away, though it may be coming via third party products. Here’s why:
In Final Cut Pro 10.0.1, Apple implemented a completely new XML schema called FCPXML that’s incompatible with the XML schema used in previous versions of Final Cut Pro. Because it’s new, it won’t work out-of-the-box with other third-party programs; all third parties will have to modify their programs to support the new schema. Fortunately, this is a fairly modest development burden, though Apple only listed two third-party developers — Blackmagic Designs and Square Box Systems — on the 10.0.1 product page.
Interestingly, Square Box Systems sells a product called CatDVPro ($395) which can now import Final Cut Pro 7 projects and export Final Cut Pro 10.0.1 compatible XML. I didn’t test this, but some folks on the Creative Cow boards  gave it a shot with good results. So, if backwards compatibility with Final Cut Pro 7 projects was a major stumbling block for you, there may be a workaround, though it will cost more than the price of the program itself.
Of course, that just raises the question: If a third party developer can make Final Cut Pro 10 backwards compatible to version 7 projects, why can’t Apple? I imagine the answer is that they didn’t feel it was a priority.
XML? Who Cares?
Let’s put XML import/export in perspective. There are three classes of Final Cut Pro users; those who extensively used third-party programs to complete their projects, those who primarily used Apple programs like Soundtrack Pro and Color to augment Final Cut’s native features, and those who produced their projects almost exclusively in Final Cut Pro.
The first category includes high-end producers who typically color-grade their footage in a third-party tool like Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, or mix or finalize audio in Avid’s Pro Tools or similar third party program. For this group, XML support could be significant, though it will take awhile for third-party developers to support FCPXML (and you have to wonder if Avid or Adobe ever will). It will be interesting to see if Apple revives Color sufficiently to add FCPXML support to its own color grading solution (I would guess not), and how quickly and extensively it supports Final Cut Pro 10.0.1 in its pro line of audio tools (you would hope soon).
Even for this group, however, XML import/export is only a fraction of the capabilities of the previous version, as shown in Figure 2. Specifically, the figure shows the export options available from Final Cut Pro 7 (File > Export on the left, File > Send To on the right), which were much more extensive than simple XML export. To a great degree, and for obvious reasons, the editing community has standardized on non-proprietary schemas like OMF and EDLs as the mediums of inter-application exchange. Apple will have to do some evangelizing to get third-party developers — particularly those selling expensive programs that consumers typically wouldn’t purchase — to add FCPXML support to their own applications.
The second category of Final Cut Pro users, which I fall into, might export audio into Soundtrack Pro for noise reduction or compression, or Color for color-grading, but typically wouldn’t need the advanced functionality offered by third-party programs. As you can see in Figure 2, Soundtrack Pro and Color integration with Final Cut Pro 7 was just a couple of clicks away.
With Final Cut Pro 10.0.1, these programs are ignored, with no direct access to either program via menu commands. Instead, you’ll have to use the feature called Roles which I discuss next. Apple’s position is that they’ve integrated the critical functions from Soundtrack Pro and Color into Final Cut Pro 10.0.1, so you no longer need these other programs. I disagree, but either way, if you’re in this category, XML support doesn’t offer a lot of value. Obviously, if you edit exclusively in Final Cut Pro 10.0.1, XML support is meaningless.
Roles: Solving a Problem Apple Created
A similar taxonomy exists for the next feature, which is called roles. Basically, roles allow you to classify audio and video content on the timeline, so when it’s time to preview or render, you can turn different classes on and off. For example, in Figure 3, I’ve disabled the music track so I can watch the video with just the narration.
To a degree, roles are a solution to a problem Apple created by making Final Cut Pro X trackless. For example, in Final Cut Pro 7, or Premiere Pro for that matter, you could accomplish the same thing by placing narration on one track and music on another, and enabling/disabling the track as necessary for preview or rendering.
In addition to preview, when rendering out to a QuickTime file, you can also use roles to create separate files for further editing in another program. This is shown in Figure 4. For most high-end users, however, OMF or EDL export in Final Cut Pro 7 provides the same capability, while those editing in sister programs like Soundtrack Pro or Color would simply use the direct export feature shown in Figure 2. Apple declined to include industry-standard mediums of exchange in their product, or direct access to Soundtrack Pro, and roles is a substitute. In my view, you don’t get brownie points for fixing a problem caused by your own questionable design decisions.
On the plus side, Roles gives you unlimited flexibility if you’d like to place your content at irregular positions or levels in the timeline, something that tracks or OMF/EDL export can’t match. But I tend to get pretty anal about media placement and organization on my timelines, primarily because I need the structure to complete my projects, not because the schema of working with tracks forces me to. So again, if I had to choose between roles and tracks, I’d choose tracks.
Again, there are certainly some complex project scenarios that could benefit from roles. For most day-to-day productions, however, there’s very little that roles offers that tracks don’t otherwise provide.
The one new feature that everyone with an OpenCL compatible graphics card will appreciate is GPU-accelerated export. I tested a few simple test projects, and saw some profound speed increases, particularly with an AVCHD clip with a Gaussian Noise effect applied. Not all producers will see these kind of benefits, but it’s nice to see OpenCL start to pay some real benefits.
And the Rest
Other noteworthy features include Xsan support (which allows multiple editors to share the same content and project files), full screen preview in Lion, the ability to set a custom starting timecode, and a camera import software development kit that will allow camera manufacturers to write drivers for native file import. Probably the best news, however, is that Apple announced that it will release an upgrade offering multiple camera editing and broadcast quality video monitoring in early 2012.
A FCPX Scorecard
What’s the verdict? Well, if you have Final Cut Pro 10, upgrading is a no brainer. If you’re a Final Cut Pro 7 user wondering whether make the leap, you have to ask two questions: First, does the new tool provide all the features you need to get the job done? At this point, Final Cut Pro X doesn’t, at least for me, with these critical deficits:
- Multicam editing (which should be resolved in a few months)
- True DVD authoring
- Layered Photoshop file import
- A multi-track audio editor
Really not that much, though I doubt that Apple will ever provide numbers two and four. Since I still produce four to eight DVDs a year, and multiple multi-track radio advertisements, Final Cut Pro X will likely never completely meet my needs the way that tools like Adobe Creative Suite can.
If Final Cut Pro X does meet your needs, then you have to ask the second question: Is this program a superior alternative to your existing system or other viable options? If you’re still on Final Cut Pro 7, you pretty much will have to switch to a different editor sometime soon. Is Final Cut Pro 10 superior to Avid or Adobe? If you edit on those systems, does Final Cut Pro X provides enough incremental functionality to justify the time investment associated with learning a new product?
For some editors it does. For example, filmmaker (and friend) David Leitner, writing in FilmMaker Magazine , commented, “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 FCPX for a week, Premiere Pro looks to me like the past.”
In contrast, writing for Creative Cow , PBS producer Walter Biscardi remarked, “All in all the worst product launch I’ve ever seen from Apple or pretty much any software manufacturer. Instead of a nice suite of applications that worked well together (FCP, Color, Motion, SoundTrack Pro, DVD Studio Pro) you now have one big app that really doesn’t do all that much well. It completely ignores the 11 years of existence by giving you zero options to open older projects. We called it iMovie Pro when it was debuted back in April and quite honestly, that’s what it is.”
For me, all the glorious new features seem like solutions to problems that I don’t have, added complexity with no payoff. With Final Cut Pro 7 or Premiere Pro, there are projects, clips, and a timeline. You import your clips, organize them into folders, and drag them down into the timeline. Then you trim a bit, add some effects, maybe a transition or two, export, and you’re done.
With Final Cut Pro 10, you have Events and Projects. You have a Magnetic Timeline, Clip Connections, a Primary Storyline, Auditions, Roles, Smart Collections: all are completely new concepts that I’ve never encountered in the dozen or so editors that I’ve cut projects on in the past, and, in some cases, they’re solutions to problems caused by questionable design decisions like the trackless interface.
The result is a cluttered interface that you really can’t control and asset management with even less control. You have effects and other functions seemingly designed to prioritize being different rather than superior. Honestly, was every established editing convention, from marking clips in and out in a source window to three-wheel color correction, so tragically flawed that it wasn’t worthy of being implemented in Final Cut Pro X, if only because it was functional and familiar to all pro target users?
More importantly, within the context of my typical projects, whether a two-hour ballet or music concert, or a ten minute streaming clip or screencam, will these new concepts help me do my job faster or better? I honestly don’t think so, particularly because Final Cut Pro 7 and now Adobe Creative Suite already suit my needs so well.
Your results may well be different. Now that there’s a trial version, Apple is at least making it easy for you to download the app and try it yourself.