An Interface That’s Easy to Learn

When I helped start the editing program at the American Film Institute, the idea of teaching post production in an academic setting seemed a little nutty. But the idea that students would someday enter the program already familiar with digital tools? Had it occurred to us, we would have thought that was ridiculous.

Today, most film students enter graduate school with knowledge of several digital media applications, not just one, and Final Cut is usually among them. That’s partly because it’s cheap, easy to pirate, and you get the suite. But it’s also because it follows a drag-and-drop, desktop-publishing approach to editing. For young people, that makes the learning curve less steep. But it doesn’t necessarily provide the best toolset for professional editing. What I’m hearing from faculty at AFI and USC is that after a few months, most students end up preferring Media Composer. They like the precise trimming, the media management and the effects interface among other things. (Chris Hocking recently blogged about FCP vs. MC and came to some of the same conclusions.)

When Avid’s segment mode debuted in the early ’90s very few editors had ever touched Pagemaker or Quark, but there was still an internal debate in Tewksbury about whether drag and drop should be the foundation of the UI. The question comes down feedback. Every computer application has to supply feedback to the user, has to show you what you’ve done. The more responsive, fine-grained and intuitively presented that feedback is, the more control you have.

Imagine that as you typed in a word processor, the text arrived on the screen a second or two after you keyed it in. Even that small delay would drive you crazy, because it would interrupt the feedback loop. Regardless of your medium, if the controls are intuitive and feedback is fast and precise the interface seems to disappear, letting you think about creating and shaping the material rather than the machine itself.

Drag and drop offers good visual feedback, but it’s only telling you about the size and shape of little rectangles on the screen. I would argue that in editing, it’s more important to provide feedback about the film itself. You want to get the editor as close to the film as possible and permit him or her to make every editorial decision based on moving video. That’s why in the MC you see frame images in segment mode, why you trim with JKL, why you can slip and slide with JKL, as well.

An easy learning curve is important, sure, but it’s not equivalent to power, nor does it help you use the system all day in the trenches without fatigue. Fast and precise often means “some training required.” There’s a lot of overlap between FCP and MC — both give you JKL trimming, both let you drag and drop clips in the timeline. But the finesse with which they do it — the tightness of the feedback loop and the elegance of the controls — makes a big difference. There’s still plenty of room for improvement and each can learn from the other. Media Composer Version 3 included much faster timeline performance as recently as last year, something editors tend to notice almost instantly.

Avid has done a lot of internal work lately, and people are starting to notice. Apple will presumably hit back soon. I’m as eager as anybody to see what they have in store for FCS3, but while we wait for the Cupertino marketing juggernaut to ramp up it’s wise to remember that a good UI is many things, some of which are pretty subtle and hard to explain in marketing materials. It takes time in front of a system to find its power, and it takes many iterations to refine an interface.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Avid vs. Final Cut, Education, User Interface

10 Comments on “An Interface That’s Easy to Learn”


  1. Great post and well put. Sadly I think our culture of instant gratification move right to editing software and it’s so hard for new editors to see the advantage of Avid’s idea of timeline interactivity vs FCP. What Avid should do it implement the DS paradigm while lets you kine of do both.

  2. Brendan Says:

    While I don’t think the mouse should ever be the foundation of Avid’s UI, I think Avid augmenting the drag-and-drop interface would serve as a gateway to the power the application offers. You said, “An easy learning curve is important, sure, but it’s not equivalent to power…”, and I agree, but it does make one comfortable quickly (especially when you’re talking about teaching the point-and-click web browsing generation) and once comfortable with the conventions of the interface, you begin to ask yourself, ‘is there a faster way to do this?’, to which, with Avid, the answer is, ‘Why yes there is! Just use the following key combination…’, and let necessity (e.g., a looming deadline) inspire diving deeper into the power offered.

  3. ron Says:

    As a former film editor and an Avid user for over 19 years, (I started on Avid system ID #6) I find FCP’s drag and drop to be much closer to the experience of cutting film. I have never overly relied on Avid’s ( superior) trim functions and I rarely use FCP’s trim function. I cut the clip and remove what I don’t need. I find having the flexibility to trim the actual clip in the timeline, without having to enter another mode, enables me to work faster and be more creative. Avid does have this function in the DS. I don’t know why they never implemented it in Media Composer. I really wish these endless discussions on which is a better system would end. It really comes down to which TOOL works for you. In some ways it is as ridiculous as comparing a Makita drill to a DeWalt. I continue to edit with both systems, depending on who is hiring me.

  4. Piri Miller Says:

    I like the DS model as well. I know when Avid took over from Softimage, they integrated some of the MC functions into DS so that Avid editors would feel more comfortable with the interface. Why not the other way around as well?
    I edit with both FCP and Avid also. I find that the tools in each allow me to adapt them to my own editing style rather than necessarily allowing the particular toolsets to determine how I am going to edit. Avid is a powerful tool but I have to admit, I have more fun with FCP.

  5. Ed Says:

    I am also an student in editing with a graphics background, which would make me the perfect archetype for your theory. I spent all these months complaining with avid because my school asked me to use it. Then there was this weekend I worked in a friend’s short, and ta-da, I was missing avid a lot.

    My conclusion is this: Avid is God in editing linear e.g. fiction, narrative. FCP is great for anything else e.g. Documentary, Animation (God here), Visual Arts, or anything with complex sound work.

    Just the right tools for the right work, none is better than the other. E.

  6. Dylan Reeve Says:

    I like my keypresses. I always have, and perhaps for that reason I’ve always found Avid to be more comfortable. To be fair I learned to use FCP before I really learned Avid, and Premiere even before that. Drag-and-drop was something familiar to be (I have a graphic design background too) so it made sense at the time, but once I adapted to Avid, which only took about two days of actual use, I felt faster and more efficient in Avid than anything else, and have gotten even faster in the years since.

    I’ve heard many summations of where Avid and FCP shine, and frankly I think in many ways they are much of a muchness. But for any offline/online process I’d go to Avid everytime. And I personally feel Avid is a faster tool – both in terms of actual speed of cutting, and actual time from start to a finished product including things like renders and effects.

    Avid’s methodology has always felt more ‘precise’ to me than FCP’s.

  7. Steve Says:

    The key issue for me is how easy it is to make editorial decisions based on moving video and sound. Making decisions based on where little rectangles are in the timeline can be intuitive but it can’t give you the same sense of control.

    The way an ap gives you feedback is critical. It should be fast (responsive), fine-grained (precise) and rich (detailed). When the feedback loop works and gives you the info you need when you need it, the ap seems to disappear and you’re just working.

    All aps have to provide feedback to the user. It’s just a lot harder to do it well with live media, because so much horsepower is required.

  8. Jaap Verdenius Says:

    One of the things never mentoned when interfaces are discussed is the role of the audio waveform. When I am editing documentary or interview I am relying almost entirely on that graphic and I need a fast and readable update. Deplored Discreet Edit* had (like Smoke) an extremely fast updating waveform that could even
    be enlarged – very useful if you have the kind of sound operator who levels at -18dB. FCP needs time to cache a waveform, it’s a bit of a nuisance but after a while it runs OK. Media Composer’s waveforms tended to be absent when the timeline was playing and really took time to re-emerge after you stopped scrolling – my reason to put Avid on the shelf, although I understood that things have improved by now. It has always struck me that “the” NLE gave so little priority to audio editing.

  9. tom acito Says:

    Hello again Jaap and good day!

    I have edit lots of dialogue on Avid, documentaries, and many many spots. with the caps lock key depressed, you can hear scrubbed audio to find the exact frame for a cut and .5 speed playback with sound is also possible. The waveform update in Avid is pathetic, not sure why but it seems to need it’s own co-processor. basically a useless feature. Fine cut audio editing is also best left to pro tools r the like as in video you are stuck with a 30th of a sec; not exactly precise.

  10. Steve Says:

    Waveforms are critical, and how each ap handles them makes for significant competitive differences.

    For what it’s worth, the waveforms in MC have improved a lot since Meridien, largely because the whole UI is faster. The trick is being able to turn them on and off from the keyboard. For that, you need to make a custom button. When I’m first cutting they’re on all the time. When I’ve got a big complicated sequence, I tend to turn them on only when I’m doing something tricky. Redrawing the entire timeline can be really slow. FCP waveforms get cached once, but they look so crude — much harder to see what you’re doing.

    Regarding caps lock–be aware that it slows down timeline performance something awful. I find that the system feels a lot more responsive if I use the shift key when I need to hear audio.


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