Apple’s Post-NAB Roadshow

It isn’t news that vision and leadership are the key ingredients in the evolving non-linear editing wars, but it was reinforced at yesterday’s “Final Cut Studio 2 Tour” at the DGA in Hollywood. I didn’t make it to NAB this year, so for me, and apparently for the rest of the audience, this was a chance to get up close and personal with the new announcements. As usual, Apple put on a great show. The presenters, led by Richard Townhill, were smart, engaging, knowledgeable, and though the show was well-rehearsed, it had a folksy quality that was very appealing.

I’m guessing that about 400 people attended — almost all of them men. (By my count there were just 11 women in the room, including two who were translating the event for the deaf.) I didn’t recognize a single editor, which means that there wasn’t much of a presence from features and long-form TV. Most attendees seemed pretty familiar with Final Cut.

The event consisted of a series of demonstrations, and there was so much to show that I often felt that features were glossed over. There was no Q&A at all, and I left with many questions unanswered.

What struck me was how willing Apple is to fundamentally re-envision basic editing features. I’ve been saying this for a long time, but it bears repeating — there is plenty of room for improvement in our tools.

What we didn’t see was much change in FCP itself. I continue to be frustrated by its anemic trim controls and I had hoped to see change in that area this year. No joy.

Details and impressions:

Motion

Motion gained some beautifully integrated 3D capabilities. You can design in a 3D world, and behaviors can be laid out in 3D space. The whole thing seemed well-visualized and wonderfully accessible. Motion also gained a slick, semi-automatic motion tracker, and a very powerful and automatic stabilizer, as well as the ability to paint with vector-based brushes.

You can now create effect templates in Motion and use them in FCP. When you modify the template, every instance of the effect in FCP is automatically updated. This means that it’s possible to create a main title and make global changes to it in a single step. Font changes within motion are also implemented in a new way. Set up your text and drag through a list of fonts and the whole text block instantly updates as you drag through the list.

Because it’s live all the time, and because you never have to look at a keyframe, motion represents a fundamentally new way to create graphics, and a testament to how intuitive and dynamic our tools can be when engineers think outside the box.

Soundtrack Pro

STP gained 5.1 panning and mixing capabilities, which I now want bad. A 5.1 mix can be represented by a single clip in the timeline, complete with 6 little waveforms. Panning couldn’t be easier.

The program also gained the ability to do automatic conforms against picture changes, something we should have had in Avid and Pro Tools long ago. (Without naming names, Townhill made an off-handed quip about how one of their competitors hadn’t been able to integrate its leading applications.) Conforms are done in a unique way, based not on footages or timecodes but on objects. The tool gives you a list of clips that were moved. The list is organized into groups, which helps, but I found myself wondering whether a big conform wouldn’t get totally unwieldy this way.

There was a new tool that helps you quickly spot hard effects (the presenter kept calling them foley) and another that was supposed to help you combine ADR readings. We were told how difficult and time-consuming it is to do this and how revolutionary (“breakthrough” was the word used) the new tools are. I found them moderately interesting, but it ain’t that hard to cut dialog and effects and Apple’s new take on this seemed pretty naive. Nevertheless, I was gratified to see the company, once again, thinking outside the box.

More useful is Soundtrack’s easily applied and very flexible fade controls. Just drag the corner of a clip to add your fade. And Soundtrack now offers a contextual tool menu that appears right under your cursor whenever you need it. Slick.

There’s also a new frequency spectrum tool that seemed much more intuitive than a graphic equalizer. And you can ask the program to mimic the sound qualities of one clip and apply that, as an EQ setting, to another — but it wasn’t very effective in the demo. You can also work on several mixes at once, each based on the same underlying cut tracks.

All changes were said to be non-destructive, and, as before, you can go from FCP to Soundtrack and back again with a couple of mouse clicks. The problem is that what comes back is just an aif file. For picture editors like me that means that we’re stuck using two programs to do basic temp mixing and when we work in our editing application all the stuff we’ve done in STP can’t be modified. Maybe there’s no way around this, but I’d sure like to have some of these capabilities (and the ability to move, cut and paste audio keyframes) in my primary editing application. I don’t want to conform my own changes!

Color

Color is an entirely new and very powerful application, almost too powerful for FCP’s core audience. Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed like people glazed over a bit during the demo, not because of the demo itself, but because the problems Color is designed to solve just aren’t on the radar of the average FCP user. You can do full, DI style corrections, with eight secondaries per shot, powerful and easy-to-use masking and a beautiful 3D spectrum display. You can easily switch between multiple corrections for a specific shot and you can group shots from the same scene or setup and correct them together. A flowchart-based effect editor allows you to create and use complex “looks.”

Color is almost certainly going to get used for DI work and it will dramatically lower the price of entry into this field. Whether it gets used by editors remains to be seen.

Compressor

There were several changes here, including a nearly three-fold speed increase and the ability to easily link multiple computers together to create informal render farms. You can also chain jobs so that basic time-consuming work is only done once.

Final Cut Pro

As mentioned, Final Cut didn’t change much in terms of UI and editorial capabilities. But we did see some important improvements to the plumbing.

You can now combine resolutions, frame sizes and frame rates in a single timeline and the system will generally do the right thing with it in real time. But I couldn’t quite see how you’d use this in a production environment where you’re planning to conform in another box. How do you deliver a list with multiple frame rates within the same sequence? Apple can offer this because many users will never conform anything, or they’ll conform in FCP itself.

Apple also introduced their ProRes 422 codec, which is more or less analogous to Avid’s DNxHD, allowing you to work with “mastering quality” HD but with lower storage and bandwidth requirements. Aja introduced the IO HD box which allows you to compress to this format in hardware for only $3500. That will give Adrenaline HD some serious competition.

Final Cut will also now deal natively with 4K compressed material from the Red camera. You can load this material and actually cut with it because the codec is wavelet-based and allows you to “peel off” a lower-res version from the full-res file in real time. What the performance will be like remains to be seen. They screened Peter Jackson’s new 12 minute WWI short, shot with a couple of prototype Red cameras. It was impressive, but to my eye it didn’t really look like film. Whether that matters anymore is an open question.

Last Thoughts

Final Cut Studio will be shipping in the next few weeks (the presenters said it would ship by the end of this month, but rumors today say it might happen a bit later). I expect that some of the excitement will get tamped down when people actually get their hands on these applications and see what their limits are.

Hardware needs may be pretty severe. The demo was done on an eight-core Mac Pro with a lot of RAM (“probably 8 gigs”) and a Radeon X1900. Everything looked quite responsive in the demo, and nothing ever needed to be rendered, but I heard one of the presenters say that Color and Motion are dependent on the video card for realtime processes and that you should invest some money there. Everything is supposed to work on an Intel laptop, but what kind of performance you’re going to get remains to be seen.

Richard Townhill claimed that they’ve now got 800,000 users. That’s formidable. Apple is pushing the technology and finding new ways to make our work more intuitive and responsive. I won’t use everything that was shown, but the fact that they are aggressively thinking of new ways to support the creative process was gratifying, to say the least.

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4 Comments on “Apple’s Post-NAB Roadshow”

  1. Philip Norden Says:

    The overall FCS2 package is very impressive and I’ll certainly buy the upgrade, but I’m also disappointed at the meager improvements to FCP. Seems to me this should correctly be called FCP 5.2, not FCP 6.
    I’ve heard that there are some other improvements that were not mentioned yesterday – the ability to force source file names to conform to clips names from within the browser, for one, but nothing like what we’d like to see. I wonder if FCP is becoming a victim of it’s own success. With 800,00 users, most of them new to editing, they’re probably getting little demand for the kind of functionality that feature editors are used to.

  2. Grant Says:

    Very nice summary.

    As an editor who spends 95% of his time in Avid, 5% in FCP, I’ve been disappointed at the slow development of the fundamental editing interface in both products. I sometimes wonder whether Avid is actually scared of changing their interface significantly so as not to alienate their user base – but I for one would welcome some basic improvements such as scripting or macros inside Composer.

    I’ve had some success using an external product called Autohotkey, but Avid should really be offering this internally. Their interface seems to have solidified sometime around 1998.

    Apple does appear to have made some major improvements to the overall studio package – but it doesn’t seem that Final Cut Server is a Unity/ISIS killer – more of a clever online media catalog.

  3. Mark Raudonis Says:

    “Final Cut Server is a Unity/ISIS killer ”

    What you should have said is FCP-X-SAN is a Unity killer. Final Cut Server is an “Interplay” killer. If you’re gonna kill someone, you might as well get their name right! :)

    Mark

  4. Grant Says:

    Hmmmm – seeing that I preceded “Final Cut Server is a Unity/ISIS killer” with the words “But is it doesn’t seem that…” your comment seems slightly weird.


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