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Review: Apple Final Cut Pro 3.0
Posted Aug 8, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Final Cut Pro 3.0 ($999; $299 upgrade; $1299 w/ DVD SP) is powerful non-linear editing software that requires no special hardware to deliver proifessional performance and quality results (assuming you bring the talent). From the first version, Apple got enough right in terms if professional features and usability at a low enough price to turn any Apple desktop or notebook computer into a very capable non-linear editing studio. And Final Cut Pro 3.0 adds some impressive new features that only hammer the point home.

When Apple began shipping the first version of Final Cut Pro some three-and-a-half years ago, it was a tenuous time for Apple and the MacOS, particularly in terms of its status as the platform of choice for creators. Fruity iMacs were decidedly consumer, while prominent non-linear editor makers—most notably, Media 100 and Avid—were increasingly focusing on Windows-version products. Since then, Final Cut Pro has literally redefined the nature of the Digital Studio and Apple is again doing the things that made it famous: busting barriers and cultivating creativity.

Final Cut Pro is a powerful non-linear editing software that requires no special hardware to deliver professional performance and quality results (assuming you bring the talent). That was the idea from the beginning. Final Cut was designed from scratch with the overly ambitious goal of matching the features of the day's fifth and seventh versions of mature editing products and incorporating 80 percent of the capabilities of Adobe's After Effects, the industry's leading compositing software.

Whether Apple's designers succeeded or not, especially in earlier versions, is open for plenty of debate. But what is clear from the market response is that Apple got enough right in terms of professional features and usability at a low enough price to turn any Apple desktop or notebook computer into a very capable non-linear editing studio. And Final Cut Pro 3.0 adds some impressive new features, though none an industry-first, that only hammer the point home.

A Familiar Face
If you're familiar with previous versions of Final Cut, version 3.0 doesn't change the basic way you work within the interface. A traditional two-window view of Source and Program morphs to reflect your current task with the left-hand source viewer changing into a trim window, effects or compositing window, an audio equalizer, or whatever task is at hand. The media bin still starts out in the lower left corner, with the timeline or sequence window to the lower right. All windows are both movable and dockable to best suit your work habits and your monitor setup. And indeed, a large monitor or two helps a great deal with any complex editing interface.

Final Cut still includes its novel drag-and-drop editing style that, as you drag a new clip into the program, opens a semi-transparent prompt, allowing you to immediately determine the proper edit mode (Insert, Overwrite, Fit-to-Fill, Replace, with Transition, etc.). You can still open and work on multiple sequences in the Timeline, as well as use media from one project in another.

On the other hand, Apple has included several new layout presets in the new version that will arrange the windows differently depending on your monitor or work style, including for a widescreen monitor or working with 16:9 footage. A new Tool Bench includes video monitoring tools, like a waveform and vectroscope, and there are a few minor changes so you can set viewing and previewing preferences that add up to a very worthwhile upgrade.

Revving Up to Real Time
Working in real time has been the virtual entitlement of top editors and editing systems for several years now, and it's no surprise that not having to wait is a good thing. Indeed, the more real-time features a system offers the better. Final Cut has, through third-party dual-channel hardware cards, supported real-time transitions, (the most overt real-time feature), for a couple of years.

With 3.0 and the help of the latest G4s, Final Cut takes real time home to the Apple processors and away from the dependence on third-party hardware. That's smart for two reasons, especially for a company that manufactures processors. First, processors continue to get faster and by moving to a faster computer, you'll gain performance. Expansion hardware can improve, too, but can't offer the across-the-board productivity gains of a general-purpose CPU. Second, unlike Wintel notebooks that generally lag a revision or two behind their desktop siblings (due primarily to heat), an PowerBook loses nothing to desktop systems in CPU power. Therefore, processor-based real-time editing can be as robust in the field or on the seat of an airplane where expansion hardware would be more awkward as it is in a comfortable studio.

Of course, there are a couple of caveats to Apple's real-time transitions. Far from all of Final Cut's transitions happen in real time. Indeed, only about one fifth (about a dozen) do, although certainly the most important ones—like dissolves and basic wipes that editors use much of the time—are real time. Final Cut helpfully shows you which are by listing them in bold.

Second, real-time transitions are only a preview and not ready for printing to tape. That's quite a normal exception for many more-affordable editing options, including some dedicated dual-stream hardware cards, and not a serious drawback. Since there are many output options beyond a simple print-to-tape that require transcoding anyway—encoding to MPEG for DVD, or to a streaming format for Web distribution—transition rendering once the editing is done is a minor shortcoming.

Also, not surprisingly, processor-based real-time performance depends on leveraging the latest and fastest processor. We tested Final Cut on an 800mHz PowerBook and had little trouble with real-time transitions. However, we would not expect that to be the case with older processors. Apple says a 300mHz is the minimum configuration; anecdotal evidence suggests 500mHz as a reliable minimum processor power for basic real-time transitions.

Finally, while the company claims this processor-based real-time dual stream architecture is an industry first, that's just Apple's typical marketing fog machine at work. Windows vendors like InSync and Canopus have been leveraging processor power for a while. Still, no matter: it's the right direction for Apple, essentially a hardware company trying to make every Apple computer a digital editing studio.

A Different Color
Real-time means more than just transition at the professional level, and one of the most helpful real-time features of top systems is color correction. Transitions generally last a second or two and if you're forced to render that length of video, it's probably not a deal-buster. But, try to correct a mild over-exposure over the length of an entire shoot, or match colors from a multi-camera shoot and you're talking about hours of work. Getting that done in real time, as you're editing, is a big sigh of relief if your source footage needs attention.

Final Cut now has the ability to do some color adjust in real time. There are six different color correction filters available and one, the three-way color correction filter, is listed in bold as supporting real-time processing. You can specifically control black levels, midranges, highlights, and color saturation and see the effects of the changes in real time either on a still frame or with the moving clip. That's a big help for rough-cut editing.

If you need further control of color or luminance, Final Cut offers several other non-real-time possibilities for evaluation and adjustment. A built-in Video Scope in the new Tool Bench can tab between a Waveform, Vectroscope, Histogram, Parade Scope, or other tools for proper reading of both luminance and color levels. A new zebra-striping feature calls out dangerous white levels, with a green zebra stripe indicating near 100% legal white and a red stripe warning that a clip exceeds acceptable white levels. The other filters include desaturating high and lows and a broadcast safe filter. By applying multiple filters, Final Cut allows you to target more than one specific problem in a given clip, albeit not necessarily in real time.

Draft Mode
OfflineRT is Apple's new mode for capturing DV—or really any other footage—at far less than its full data rate. The benefit is getting far more footage onto a hard drive, particularly onto finite capacity of an PowerBook's hard drive. For example, by the numbers, DV's data rate is 3.6MB/sec or about 2GB for every 9.5 minutes of footage compared to OfflineRT at 660KB/sec for the video portion of the data. With audio adding extra data, OfflineRT gets about 40 minutes per gigabyte.

OfflineRT does not capture video at full screen, but rather at 320x240 using QuickTime's Photo-JPEG compression format. Therefore, the preview image you'll be editing from will not be of the full quality of the source, nor finished product, and that may be a distraction. However, for basic decision-making, especially during rough-cut editing, the quality should be sufficient. If the difference is between getting some work down or none (while traveling, for example), OfflineRT could be a boon.

Naturally, Final Cut's media management allows you to recapture your source footage at its native resolution and directly incorporate it into a project in place of the OfflineRT footage. In fact, the new media manager can even transcode captured media into OfflineRT, should you need to move to an PowerBook for editing.

Documentary videomakers, as well as corporate editors on a deadline, will love Final Cut's new ability to record a narration track directly to the timeline as you preview the visual edits you've already made. Using a microphone connected to the computer, you simply hit record in a pop-up Voice Over window and you're recording. Recorded clips appear as typical audio clips, automatically dropped into timeline in the proper place. The Voice Over window includes input levels and headphone volume, as well as an audio offset of one to 12 frames to adjust for latency of the audio processing or, potentially, your brain. Once you've recorded narration tracks, you can edit them just as you would any other audio clip, with output control gain and rubberbanding.

Note that this Voice Over recording is a memory hog, using about 6MB per minute of recording. That's especially critical if you're working in OS 9, where you'll probably want to allocate additional memory to the application. The alternative is to do several shorter takes through the length of your video, although that may require more audio editing after the fact.

Professional Enough?
If you're an Adobe Premiere user looking to move to a more robust editor, Final Cut is a wonderful solution, adding far more editing features, control, and speed. If you're a professional used to working in an Avid or some other top-of-the-line suite, you'll likely find Final Cut a little clunky. But that's probably OK.

As good as Final Cut Pro is, there's little question that it's far from the best non-linear editor out there. Integrated systems from Avid, Media 100, Quantel, and others may all claim more features, faster editing, and more targeted professional tools. But Final Cut Pro does it for pennies on the dollar compared to those hardware-software combinations on a standard, off-the-shelf Apple G4 desktop or PowerBook computer.

The success of Final Cut Pro is not that it knocks down the professional competition, although it's coming closer all the time. Rather, Final Cut knocks down barriers. Professional editors are no longer tied to a studio. They can edit in a home studio and just as effectively on a portable computer, with no limitations save the monitor-size limitations of an PowerBook with no external display. And that's a mind shift for a once-exclusive industry.

What's more, because of its low price---$999 retail; $299 upgrade--Final Cut allows any MacOS desktop in a production studio—be it for an animator, 3D artist, video logger, or audio technician—to serve as a full-fledged editing station.

The price also breaks down barriers for newer users—although Final Cut is far from an entry-level tool and should probably not be used that way without a lot of patience—trying to gain access to affordable, professional editing tools. And this is where Apple has always felt the most at home: creating tools that democratize creativity and break down the barriers, and that just begets efficiency compared to moving files back and forth.

Apple Computer, Inc.

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