Jeffery Harrell

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Jun 23

What went wrong with Final Cut Pro X

We don’t use ink to express our opinions any more, which is a shame. If we did, I could start this out by talking about the ocean of ink that’s been spilled on Final Cut Pro X over the past couple of days, and how hardly a drop of it has been positive, and how Apple deserves every last speck and spatter of it.

I spent my morning trying out Final Cut Pro X. And I just … I’m shocked. That’s the best word for it. I’m just shocked. It’s incredibly bad.

But there’s a sort of nuance as to exactly how and why it’s bad that’s gotten a bit lost in all the blog posts and the Twitter screams. And it’s worth taking a minute to reflect on that nuance.

Broadly speaking, we can divide everything there is to say about FCP X into four big piles: stuff that’s new and works great; stuff that’s new and quirky and takes getting used to; omitted features one can imagine Apple adding in the near future; and absolutely crippling design flaws that, unless fixed and soon, spell death for Final Cut Pro as a commercial nonlinear editing system.

First, the new-and-great. This includes basically everything Apple’s touting as the key innovations. Performance is the big one. Final Cut Pro X is way faster than Final Cut Pro 7 was, but it’s the specific ways in which it’s optimized to be faster that are the real winners. If you’re loading media off a hard drive, say, it still takes time to copy that media into your media folder. There’s no way around that; the frames have gotta be moved. But FCP X does something really clever there. It shows you the shots in your bin — pardon me, in your “event” — instantly. Just boom, and there they are. You can start reviewing them. You can even edit them right into your timeline! Meanwhile, in the background, FCP X is copying the frames over to your media folder. When they’re ready, FCP X automatically and invisibly redirects all the references to those shots to the correct files on your RAID or whatever. It’s a great feature.

Final Cut Pro X also automatically detects people in your shots — probably using the same algorithm found in iPhoto and Aperture — and categorizes them for you: one person, two people, close-ups, wides. It’s really cool.

But it’s hard to appreciate what’s new-and-cool when there’s so much that’s missing. Up to day-before-yesterday, Apple had what was arguably the world’s best multi-camera editing system. Today? Gone. I don’t mean it’s not as good. I mean it’s gone. The feature is simply not present in FCP X.

And what about broadcast monitoring? Every commercial editing bay on the planet has a broadcast monitor sitting right next to the computer monitor. That little window on the screen, that’s just a preview. The broadcast monitor is where your pictures really live. It’s what you watch when you’re working. And Final Cut Pro X includes no support, of any kind, for broadcast monitoring. Period. It’s just not there.

Three-letter acronyms like EDL, OMF and XML might not mean anything if you’re not in the business. But if you work in commercial post, they’re absolutely vital. Those are all ways of getting timelines into and out of your edit system. Need to get an EDL from another editor? Tough. You can’t. Need to send an XML to Smoke or Resolve or Scratch for grading and finishing? Tough. You can’t. Need to send an OMF to your audio guy for final mixing? Tough, you can’t. These aren’t small omissions. They’re real showstoppers in commercial post.

But all those things can be added later. We can imagine that Apple’s got thirty guys working twenty-hour days right now hammering away on Final Cut Pro X 10.1, getting all those important features put in. They aren’t there now, and that sucks, but we can imagine they’ll be added later, and that is at least something a reasonable person can bite his lip and tolerate.

That’s not the problem. I mean, yes, that’s a problem. If you depend on those things — and a lot of people do — then Final Cut Pro X is simply not for you. Maybe it will be later, but it isn’t right now.

But we haven’t talked about the crippling design flaws yet. And by “crippling” I mean absolutely crippling.

Like the fact that Final Cut Pro X shows you all your media all the time.

Sounds great in principle, right? You mean I don’t have to dig through folders in the Finder to find my shots? Great! What a time-saver!

But in practice, it’s the kind of thing that can literally put you out of business.

Imagine you’re a professional editor. You do television commercials for a living, working for some facility or other. Two of your clients — and I’m just making up an example right now — are American Airlines and Delta. You do jobs for both on a regular basis.

How do you think it would go over if the American Airlines agency guys came in for their supervised session and saw a bunch of Delta bins on your edit system?

It’d be a disaster, is the answer. The Delta guys would be furious that you’re letting their competitors see what they’re working on, and the American guys would be furious because you’re the kind of editor who’d let other clients see what they’re working on. That’s the kind of mistake that would lose you business.

Think that’s a contrived example? Think again. Post houses do work for competitors all the time. Home Depot and Lowe’s, McDonald’s and Burger King, FedEx and UPS, BMW and Mercedes. It happens all the time.

And right now, the only way to keep Final Cut Pro X from showing the Coke guys all your Pepsi projects and vice-versa is to put the media for each on a separate filesystem and physically unmount it when you’re not working with it. Which is exactly what every nonlinear edit system vendor on the planet has been working their butts off to get away from for the past decade.

This isn’t an omission. This isn’t a quirk we all have to get used to. This was a choice. Somebody at Apple — several somebodies, probably — had to sit down and think this through and decide it sounded like a great idea.

And all it would’ve taken was a five-minute conversation with anybody who’s ever worked in commercial post a day in their lives. “Hey, how about we show you every bin and every shot on your system all the time?” “No! That’d be a catastrophe!” That’s all it would’ve taken.

But either Apple didn’t have that conversation, or they didn’t listen when they did.

And it’s not just the media-management architecture that’s flawed. One of the new features Apple’s touting is what they’re calling the “Magnetic Timeline,” which they describe as an improvement over “traditional, track-based timelines.” Well Apple, love you guys, but we use traditional, track-based timelines for a reason. Ever had a project so organizationally complex you needed twenty tracks of video just to keep it straight? I have. So’s every editor who’s ever done even a reasonable-sized project. And it’s not just organizational convenience, either. Those “traditional tracks” Apple thinks are such dinosaurs map directly onto physical tracks. We need to be able to put music on tracks one and two, VO on three and foley and effects on four through eight. We require the ability to assign different tracks to different output channels, so the tape master that goes to the network meets their delivery specs.

The lack of tracks on the timeline isn’t an omission. It’s another choice. It’s another thing Apple had to sit down, think through, and decide to do. And it’s another way in which Apple’s created a product that’s literally unusable for commercial post.

That distinction has, I think, gotten lost in the last couple days of dissatisfied chatter. There are some things about Final Cut Pro X that aren’t okay right now. Not having multi-camera editing, not having broadcast monitoring … those will prevent some people from being able to use the product until they’re added. The appropriate reaction to those omissions is “Okay, we’ll wait and see.”

But this other stuff … these aren’t omissions. They’re mistakes. They’re conscious, deliberate choices Apple made and got wrong. And as long as FCP X shows you all your bins all the time, and as long as FCP X doesn’t have the concept of tracks in the timeline, it’s going to be literally unusable in commercial post. Because those aren’t optional features that could be lived without until they’re bolted on in a future update. They’re fundamental design decisions that dictate how the program works. And as long as the program works that way, it’s simply not usable by people who edit video for a living.

This isn’t just a bunch of entitled, stubborn editors whining to each other. Well, I mean, it is, and I’m one of them. But aside from that, there’s also some really serious stuff going on. It’s not “I don’t like it,” or “I don’t prefer it” or even “I choose not to make the change because it’s too burdensome for too little benefit.” It’s “Because of the choices you guys made, we literally can’t use your product any more.”

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