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Learning to Love Final Cut Pro X

I’m always amazed at just how fast the hands of time move when we are sitting at our edit suites. It seems like yesterday that Apple stock was $17 and Michael Dell was speculating on what he would do if he were in charge of Apple: “I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.” It was Oct. 6, 1997, and Apple had recently purchased a pro video editing software package called KeyGrip from Macromedia. In 1998, Apple changed that name to Final Cut Pro and a revolution began. Over the next decade or so we would see Final Cut Pro evolve through version 7 and become the edit platform of choice for professionals everywhere.

Fast-forward to April 12, 2011. I wasn’t at the NAB SuperMeet where Apple had promised to unveil its new NLE, but like countless editors around the world, I waited with schoolboy excitement for the announcement from Apple that Final Cut Pro X (pronounced 10, not X) had arrived.

The Promise of FCPX

A 64-bit application completely rebuilt with a new interface, workflow enhancements, and automation … we all pored over every word of that announcement, so there is no need to repeat it all here. As an FCP user myself since version 2, like so many of you, I could taste the native H.264 processing that promised to rescue me from the time-sucking black hole of transcoding DSLR footage.

Sure, I had Adobe’s Premiere Pro CS5.5, which had been offering 64-bit performance optimization and native DSLR editing for more than a year, but with the promise of Apple’s new direction, for some reason, I just couldn’t motivate myself to get excited about pouring energy into what had suddenly started to look like yesterday’s NLE interface. My ship had come in and I was celebrating the free time I would once again have on my hands as I fantasized about all this newfound power that Apple would unleash in its latest Final Cut Pro release.

The Reality of FCPX

I can still remember that sick feeling I had in the pit of my stomach the first time I opened FCPX. Nothing looked familiar. The UI (user interface) looked more like iMovie than FCP7, the familiar user preferences and system settings tabs that offered so much control were missing and the timeline looked strange. To make matters worse, it was virtually impossible to find words of encouragement in the vast world of the Internet.

I immediately retreated back to the stronghold of FCP7, licking my wounds and apologizing to my MPEG Streamclip application for abandoning it so foolishly. For now, it was back to hours of transcoding before we could even start to edit. I continued to dabble with FCPX from time to time, only to find that the optimism I once shared with so many had turned to despair.

Mother of Invention

It wasn’t until we received a revised timeline for a wedding where we had a same-day edit (SDE) to produce that I felt the need to approach FCPX from a different viewpoint. I desperately needed to find a solution that would provide us with edit-ready footage in a timely fashion without having to transcode.

I decided at that point that I was going to stick with Apple and move in a radical direction that continued to challenge the current mindset of many editors worldwide. So it is from this perspective that I am writing about my experience with FCPX. I have come to recognize the gem that it truly is and will no doubt become over time for so many of us that recoiled from it at first.

The NLE Re-Imagined

Apple has taken the time to reimagine Final Cut Pro in particular and the NLE user interface in general, which was based on the analog tape-to-tape model and has continued to adhere to it since long after we left that old media and editing paradigm behind. Naturally, you cannot re-create 15 years of product development in just 2 short years without delivering a version 1 release that’s missing some features of a mature NLE such as FCP7. FCP7 was built on painfully old technology that would require too much work to salvage, and I’d be the first to admit that it was looking more and more like a joke when compared to Premiere Pro. Apple pretty much needed to take this leap if it wanted to continue to remain a player in the editorial world.

The FCPX Project Library

Apple has created FCPX from the ground up based on AV Foundation, which is Apple’s next-generation framework for doing advanced audio and video applications. If approached from that standpoint, then instead of expecting it to act like a 64-bit successor to FCP7, FCPX is truly incredible. In short, it’s the most feature-rich professional version 1 editing application the world has ever seen.

It’s unfortunate that Apple didn’t communicate more clearly to its customer base that this was, in fact, a v. 1 product based on completely new technology with the intent of once again revolutionizing the way we tell stories through editing. Thankfully, those of us not quite ready to take the leap into an entirely new editing paradigm — or reluctant to suffer through the growing pains of a new editor — can still take advantage of FCP7, Premiere Pro, and MediaComposer while we sit back and watch how FCPX matures over the next couple of years.

I suspect many of you have had a similar experience dealing with the failed expectations of Apple’s release of FCPX. While this is not intended to be an in-depth review or all-encompassing tutorial of FCPX, I hope that it will inspire you to view this revolutionary edit suite from a different perspective and to challenge you to let go of the old and explore the new. FCPX is still a v. 1 product, and as such it clearly lacks some important features you’ll need if you’re working in the pro broadcast arena. It is, however, very exciting to experience something so powerful for only $299.

Not so Different

My first recommendation is to understand that sometimes the impression of change can be more daunting or significant than the change itself. At first glance, FCPX seems to be radically different from legacy FCP versions, but on closer exploration, you will notice that many of the features we have come to rely on are integral parts of FCPX. In some cases, these features are no longer found in familiar locations, and, in other cases, they are simply included as default settings that are no longer changeable.

My second recommendation is to invest in some professional training. I chose to purchase Larry Jordan’s FCPX training series [1] and credit his tutorials with the success I have had with unleashing the power in FCPX to my advantage. For the record, I am using FCP X on a 17″ MBP with 8GB RAM and the Lion OS. I have had no issues whatsoever with the stability or speed of the application in this setup.

Experiment on a Real Project

My 5D footage in FCPX’s magnetic timeline

I think it’s important to schedule some time to learn and to explore FCPX and to use a real project to do so — one that has a deadline to it so that you will stay focused and committed. If you’re like me, you’ll want to dive in headfirst (which is part of the reason so many of us jumped back out just as quickly when we didn’t like or recognize what we saw).

The first thing I couldn’t wait to do was to ingest some footage shot on our Canon 5D Mark II and put FCPX to the test. It was some footage I captured from an interview with two cameras and two audio tracks, both shot on the 5D. For a short while, I was like a kid in a candy store as I skimmed through this footage with ease.

Project Organization

It’s also important to have a good grasp on the different ways that FCPX manages data with respect to legacy FCP versions. FCPX creates what is called an “Event Folder” on each hard drive used. Within this Event Folder, you’ll find a highly complex database that manages your source video clips when they are imported.

Additionally, FCPX creates a Project folder that contains edit decisions, instructions, waveforms, thumbnails, and proxies for each project created. Each of these folders is managed by its respective database structure, which Apple says improves the stability, flexibility, and speed of FCPX.

It is because of this database structure that FCPX is able to organize files faster and better, enabling the user to leverage the powerful metadata and keyword search features that are embedded in FCPX. These search features are the heart and soul of what allows the user to have all source media on all hard drives connected be available to all projects at any time.

Imagine searching through 12TB of video content and being able to discriminately display only those clips cataloged with certain keywords or metadata. This feature alone in FCPX shaves measureable time in the postproduction workflow.

Editing the SDE

As mentioned earlier, my first real FCPX project was a Same Day Edit. After my initial test drive of FCPX, I had roughly three days to become comfortable with the user interface and develop a workflow that I could use in the time-constrained environment of an SDE.

I used footage from a previous wedding to simulate the upcoming event. I copied the individual clips to my external HDD and then started to import the video into the Event Library (sort of like the Browser in previous versions of FCP, but much more powerful).

FCPX’s Color Effects HUD

I then created a new Project (similar to a Sequence in FCP) and began the process of skimming my clips followed by adding them to the project storyline. One of my favorite features in Final Cut Pro X is the ability to skim. I love how I can easily hover over the timeline with my mouse and all the clips in the Event Browser and watch a clip play out as I move the mouse forward or back.

Before we move on, let’s take a moment to look a little closer at the project storyline, which at first glance looks a bit like a very simple timeline in FCP, but is actually far more versatile than that. FCPX’s new magnetic timeline is a joy to work with as it lets me assemble shots with ease. Clips magnetically close, eliminating unwanted black gaps in the timeline. Clip collisions and sync problems are avoided using the magnetic timeline, which allows me to focus more on story creation.

Video and audio tracks can be easily separated to resemble a more traditional timeline look and facilitate adding additional video and audio tracks in a similar fashion to previous FCP versions. You can change opacity and add a variety of video transitions quite easily.

Likewise, with audio you can quickly change levels, adjust fade in/out points with precision, and add many different audio effects that are all easily editable. Keyframing is also a breeze and is done directly on the timeline. The trim, ripple, roll, slip, and slide edits that were an essential part of previous FCP versions are all still available, and work very nicely within the magnetic timeline.

Choosing video and audio effects in FCPX

While many of the keyboard shortcuts in FCPX differ from earlier versions of FCP, it didn’t take me long to familiarize myself with the default settings that I needed. There is also a nifty feature that lets you remap the keyboard to create your own shortcuts so you can mimic those of FCP7 or other NLEs if you like to mirror what you are familiar with.

Working on the SDE, after I add my music bed track below the clip audio, I can immediately start to make further adjustments to the clips in my storyline while adding new ones. I realize that my workflow in FCPX has been much quicker up to this point than in legacy versions of FCP, and then it dawns on me that while I was skimming clips, adding them to the storyline, adjusting audio, and so on, FCPX has been fast at work in the background transcoding my 5D video into Apple ProRes422 while copying it to the FCP event folder on my external HDD. This is truly amazing when you consider everything that’s taking place behind the scenes without slowing or disturbing the edit process.

With the bulk of my edit completed, I need to layer some different camera angles during the ceremony and sync the audio. While FCPX has audio sync capability, I haven’t found it to be as user-friendly as Singular Software’s popular PluralEyes multicam sync application (which is currently not available for FCPX). But during the SDE I was able to sync three video clips to one audio clip from our R44 external recorder fairly easily.

Making color adjustments in FCPX

If your current workflow relies on the use of multicamera editing features then you may find yourself in withdrawal; just as you’ve surely read and heard elsewhere, the current version of FCPX does not support this kind of functionality as in legacy versions. However, Apple confirms that multicam editing — ”an important and popular feature” — is coming to FCPX, stating, “We will provide great multi-cam support in the next major release. So, in the meantime you have to edit multiple camera tracks the way we did before we had multicam in legacy FCP.”

Adding transitions and editing the parameters was very easy using FCPX’s HUD (heads-up display). I found the color grading and correction tools as easy to work with as FCP7’s once I located them.

I cannot stress how helpful it was to enlist some third-party training to familiarize me with the UI and unlock the power of FCPX. I would have spent countless unproductive hours searching on my own — time you simply don’t have when you have an SDE to deliver.


Sending the completed SDE to Vimeo

Now, with my edit completed, I’m able to leverage some of the new features for exporting. Apple has included some built-in functionality that will let you post straight to Vimeo, YouTube, Facebook, or CNN’s iReport page. Additionally, there is functionality for burning a DVD or Blu-ray, or exporting to any Apple iDevice or AppleTV as well as a feature that creates a small version to send via email.

Of course, you can export to Compressor just as before, although Compressor doesn’t ship with FCPX as it did with Final Cut Studio. For our SDE, we simply exported the media to a QT movie and then played it from QT on the laptop when the appropriate time arrived.

Worth a Second Look

I have to say that I was guilty of judging the book by its cover initially, rejecting FCPX out of hand because of its apparent dissimilarity from FCP7, and that was a mistake. While the UI looks similar to iMovie, the actual application is far superior to it and warrants a healthy second look. There are lots of misinformation and many half-truths floating around cyberspace about FCPX.

For $299 and the price of some good third-party training materials, you can spend less than $500 and in 3 days find yourself surprised at how quickly you’ve adapted.

Once I made a genuine effort to learn FCPX and leverage the technology that Apple has made available I can honestly say that it has saved me time in my post workflow and ushered me into a new way of editing—and there’s no looking back.

Scott Strimple (scotts@unitedwedding.com [2]) runs United Wedding Productions, a Richmond, Va.-based studio specializing in “Arthouse Wedding Films,” with his wife, Stephanie. Winner of multiple WEVA CEAs — including two 2011 Golds for Corporate Production and Corporate Event Highlights and a Silver for Short-Form Wedding Production — Scott was a featured educator at the “crossover” photo/cinema educational event PSD Experience in April 2011.