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In the Studio: Apple Final Cut Server
Posted Oct 1, 2008 - October 2008 Issue Print Version     Page 1of 1

Apple’s newest addition to its "Pro App" lineup is Final Cut Server. But what is it, what does it do, and what can it do for you? I spent a week this past August at Apple’s offices in Boston for my training in Final Cut Server, and I now feel amply qualified to fill you in on what it is, and what it isn’t. There’s a lot of mystery and misinformation surrounding Final Cut Server, and I’m going to try to sort that all out for you in this article. To begin with, Final Cut Server (Figure 1) used to be called Artbox, a media management and workflow automation solution developed by Proximity and used by many large broadcasters such as FOX and ESPN. Then Apple bought Artbox, which was a purely Linux application, and ported it to the Mac OS X flavor of UNIX. Final Cut Server (abbreviated as FCSvr—probably to avoid confusion with Final Cut Studio, which is sometimes abbreviated as FCS) manages media assets by providing a unified interface and workflow for postproduction professionals. It manages uploads of media—where the media goes, what format it is retained in, who gets to see it and work with it, what projects it’s a part of, etc. And as for workflow, FCSvr automates much of the communication, transferring, transcoding of media, and more.

As of this writing (late August), FCSvr is in version 1.0.1, which means it’s in its infancy as an Apple application and will surely grow to be much more powerful and flexible (and, we can only hope, more "pretty") than it already is. The next thing to understand is that FCSvr is not a piece of software designed for editors. Although there is a client application that allows editors to work with it, FCSvr is very much in the IT professional’s domain. If you don’t have an IT background or experience working with database systems and fileservers, FCSvr may throw you for a loop. But have no fear, the end-user part of FCSvr is very easy to learn and use. In fact, the training program Apple currently offers for the product dedicates the first day to the end-user (editors, graphic designers, producers, etc.) experience, and the following 2 days strictly to the IT admin folks. FCSvr walks that fine line. So if you’re just an end-user editor who isn’t looking for a large asset management and workflow automation system, stay away. But if you’re in a medium-sized or larger production studio with a networked, collaborative workflow, and you need to manage projects, media, and staffers, this software package could make your life much easier.

Getting Started
FCSvr is installed on an OS X server, or Intel Mac Pro, that would have some sort of high-end, massive storage apparatus connected, such as a multiterabyte RAID or similar solution. It’s accessed through its icon in the System Preferences, although users and groups are still set up at the OS level and then only "assigned" in FCSvr (Figure 2).

There are tools there to assign permissions to users and groups, create devices, set up automations, and schedule backups of the database. In this context, a "device" is simply a folder somewhere that has a specific purpose and function. You can limit which members of your team can access its contents and what they can do with the contents, including who can make changes and who can only look at it. An "automation" is a scripted action; FCSvr automations include Watchers, Scanners, and Subscriptions. Watchers are folders that do something when some specific piece of content changes. Scanners scan a folder on a set schedule and do something when predefined settings to some specific parameter change. Subscriptions perform automated communication tasks when triggered by some specified action. There are also different types of scanning and different types of subscriptions. It can get complicated, which is one reason FCSvr is primarily the domain of IT folks, not editors.

The database backup is only for the FCSvr database catalog, not for all media everywhere. That’s a backup system that your IT folks would set up separately. And although FCSvr does not do that level of backup, it provides a workflow that makes it very easy to take care of that level of protection. I won’t go into too many details here, but suffice it to say that for an IT person, it’s not a huge task at all. I say all this to point out the fine line that FCSvr walks between creative and IT departments.

A Typical FCSvr Workflow
To give you an idea of how you might use FCSvr in your studio, let’s look at a hypothetical workflow. Let’s say we have a local TV station that has to do a segment on the Rex parade that rolls through New Orleans on Mardi Gras day. We have a producer in charge of running the show, an editor, and a graphics person doing lower thirds and such. There are three camera guys going out. One of them has a reporter doing interviews at the ball, the other two are B-roll shooters. The whole thing, once approved, must be transcoded to a MPEG-2 broadcast stream file and moved to the station’s play-out server to be scheduled and aired.

Here’s how this would work: The producer (with or without an IT person) may set up a project in FCSvr and assign only his people to be able to access that project. He calls them all in, has a preproduction meeting, and lets them loose to do their work. The three cameras guys go out and get footage and interviews, but one cameraman is shooting Panasonic’s P2 DVCPRO-HD, one is shooting JVC’s HDV, and one is shooting Sony XDCAM HD. No problem! When each shooter gets back to the station, he or she will hook up to either a Windows or Mac station, offload the footage, launch the FCSvr "client" application, and upload. Since the client app is Java, it runs on either Mac or Windows. The project was set up so that when each shooter uploads his or her footage to that specific Project in FCSvr, an automation handles the mixed-format issue in the background. The shooters drop their files into the FCSvr project, log out, and go on to their next assignment.

FCSvr already knows to convert everything to ProRes 422, as was set up by the producer or the FCSvr admin person at the producer’s request. Apple Compressor, running on the FCSvr machine alone or in a Compressor "cluster," does all this automatically and hands it off, sight unseen. Once that footage is loaded up, FCSvr, as preconfigured for this project, may send an email to the editor and producer alerting them that the footage is ready to edit.

Next, the producer reviews the footage and marks what he wants and doesn’t want. When he’s done, he can change the status of the footage to ready, which notifies the editor that it’s time to rock and roll. The editor does her rough edit and marks it for review, which automatically notifies the producer and graphic designer. The producer reviews it, OKs it, and changes the status to approved, which automatically notifies the editor and graphic design. The designer goes in and does the lower thirds, fancy motion graphic stuff, titles, etc., and then changes the project’s status to composite-ready. The editor is automatically notified, as is the producer. The editor composites the graphics into the final edit and changes the project’s status to final approval. The producer is automatically notified. He pulls it up, reviews it, OKs it, and changes the status to ready-to-air.

This status change tells FCSvr to convert the final product to a predetermined MPEG-2 broadcast stream file and then to move that file onto a specified location on the station’s playout server. It automatically notifies an engineer that it’s ready to be scheduled for an air date. Our system was also set up to create a web-ready H.264 version and to put that copy in another location to be incorporated into the station’s website. The web design person is automatically notified.

Next, that web design person goes into the project and edits it down to the trailer to be place on the web. This file can be approved by the producer automatically as we’ve seen, and then uploaded.

Let’s go a bit further, and say this special local TV show will also be made available on DVD sometime after it airs. When our producer gave the final approval, FCSvr also made the MPEG-2 and ACC files, and placed them in the appropriate spot for the DVD authoring team. It automatically notifies them too.

So when our producer and everyone else involved get to a specific place in the project, they simply click twice to change the project status, and poof—all the appropriate communications and transcoding and file copying and such happen automatically. Even when the footage was uploaded, no one had to convert it to ProRes; it happened automatically in the background on the server. In this case, FCSvr can also take advantage of Compressor’s "cluster" feature to shorten encoding times.

This is only one of a million possible scenarios in which FCSvr can be used to great advantage in a postproduction environment. All these file management, sharing, and access issues can get pretty complicated under the hood, but to the end user, it’s pretty easy.

What FCSvr Will Do—and What it Won’t
One complaint I’ve heard often is that FCSvr won’t allow several people to open the same FCP project at one time. My response is, why would you want to? Why would you want several people making changes to edits in the same project all at the same time? This sounds like a version-control nightmare waiting to happen. Whose edits overwrite everyone else’s? That’s just silly! And you’re not working that way now, anyway. In every situation I encounter, having two or more FCP projects for each of your editors, then having one chief editor or the producer put them all together in a final output is a much safer and easier solution.

Will FCSvr make coffee? Nope. Does it require a lot of IT work? Yes, as well it should; it’s a server, after all. And IT servers typically require an IT person to install and maintain them. So it isn’t for one-person production shops. It’s really geared toward larger studios with more complex workflows. Can you use it to catalog your own stock media? Yes you can. But you’ll have to learn the IT side of it. Does it back up everything to a Quantum tape drive on its own? No, but there is a third-party solution in the works that I’ve heard of. This is the beauty of FCSvr: As with other Apple Pro Apps, there’s a lot for third-party vendors to contribute to it. And as for backup, since you’re running a file server anyway, there are server-level Quantum backup solutions. Just have that solution back up your media drives—presto, done.

So, FCSvr will import and catalog media, store it, transcode it, make copies, and add metadata, all depending on the specific import situation and what it requires. It can detect changes in folders, files, and metadata, as well as perform automated actions based on those specific events. It can send notifications and restrict access and actions. It’s media storage and project management all in one package.

Another issue I get asked about a lot is whether anyone is really using FCSvr yet. In fact, Delgado College in New Orleans, where I teach, just installed it, and I’m configuring it for classroom use. It’ll handle everything from students ingesting footage to notifying teaching staff when they reach various stages in their semester projects, and it'll compile everything when done for their theater screenings. It will also prepare files to be inserted into a DVD Studio Pro template so they all have a copy of the class’s projects to take home with them. What’s more, Apple has profilesw of TVB (Hong Kong’s largest broadcaster) and Blomeley Communications on its website, both of which used FCSvr to produce and deliver shows from the Beijing Olympics.

Hardware Requirements
What are the hardware requirements? Well, that depends. You can install it on a MacBook Pro if you want to. If you do, it will have limited bandwidth for communications and transcoding. But any old Mac Pro with enough storage will work. You can use internal drives, network drives, SMB, FTP, RAID, XSAN volumes, and the like for storage. Storage locations are referred to as devices in FCSvr, and by this designation Apple simply means a drive or a folder on a drive. Devices can have specific properties assigned to them such as permissions, automated actions, and such. It’s a very flexible system.

Networking can run from nothing, running the server and the client on the same machine. This approach can be pretty limiting. I use this type of configuration just to demo it and to train, but I wouldn’t use this in any real-world production situation. It can run over Gigabit Ethernet, in which case you’d open a project and have an "edit proxy" download (a function Apple calls "check out") to your local system to edit with. Then, when you’re done and you've uploaded the project back ("check in"), the project on the server is updated. If you’re on something like a Link Aggregate connection (using two Ethernet connections as one virtual connection) or other Ethernet configurations that increase your bandwidth, you have options for downloading "primary representations" (the full-resolution original video) over time, then editing, then letting FCSvr upload back to the server’s storage. Ideally, you’d use XSAN, which allows you to "edit in place," meaning you can edit a project without having to download anything—i.e., edit over the network live.

Although the actual server app in FCSvr only runs on Mac OS X and OS X Server, the client software is a Java application that runs on Mac OS X, Windows XT, and Vista. This means you can easily use FCSvr in a complex, mixed-format, multiplatform network. Of course you won’t be able to open Final Cut Studio projects on a Windows system, but you can have access to the media to use in your local Windows-based NLE project.

Interface Issues
For all its functional advantages, the client app does need some brightening up; it’s still reminiscent of the original Artbox interface (Figure 3). Just as they did with Logic, I’m sure the Apple engineering team will introduce a nicer interface in future updates. The dull gray can be slightly difficult to deal with and the text could be just a tad brighter, but as I mentioned, it’s a version one release. So let’s hope for better-looking interfaces in the near future.

I could take pages and pages to explain the ins and outs of FCSvr, but space is limited. So I’m going to leave you with this general overview of what its technical capabilities are and how it works.

Is Final Cut Server for everyone? In a nutshell, no. A one- or two-person shop would do better to manually create a folder structure on a hard drive and use Adobe Bridge to manage its assets. But for mid-size and larger studios, broadcast stations, and environments where you have multiple people doing different jobs on multiple projects, FCSvr can be a huge timesaver and organizer. It’s powerful, flexible, and really nice for a version one release. I’m anxious to see how it evolves over time.

Ben Balser (benb at bbalser.com) is an Apple Certified Trainer based in New Orleans. He specializes in training and consulting, and also produces documentaries, educational material, and commercial work. Contact Ben with Final Cut Studio questions and he will try to address them in future tutorials.

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