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Review: Apple Final Cut Pro 4
Posted Oct 3, 2003 - May 2005 Issue Print Version     Page 1of 1

Synopsis: When Final Cut Pro was conceived, it was going to be software that edited as well as a mature Media Composer and composited like AfterEffects. A tall order to say the least, and early versions hit the highlights, but glossed over important details. In Final Cut Pro 4, Apple has addressed obvious weaknesses of earlier versions, bolstered workflow, and added features that make it a killer editing application virtually regardless of price. The newest Final Cut Pro is a remarkable combination of elitist editing power and helpful tools for the less well-heeled novices.

Remarkably, in only four years (and mostly in the last two), Apple has secured Final Cut Pro's position in the mainstream of professional video editing. It's not merely that Final Cut has joined the fray as another nice editing interface or yet another competitor in the crowded post-production market. What's extraordinary is that Final Cut Pro has, in that short time, become an industry standard—like Avid's decade-mature Composer—that aspiring editing pros really need to learn to get ahead. It's a fantastic achievement by any measure.

Of course, make no mistake, Apple's success with Final Cut Pro hasn't been built solely on the breadth of the software's editing features and the brawn of its real-time visualization and organized workflow. Final Cut is good—very good in places—and has gotten better with each revision. But Apple, more interested in selling G-boxes than earning a profit on editing software, has also muscled into this vaunted position by offering professional features for pennies on the dollar. By offering so much for so little money, Apple has made any creative MacOS desktop—be it an audio, graphics, or 3D animation workstation—a potential video-editing station, too. Final Cut Pro is not only a capable editor, but it's become a collaborative platform as well.

Now Apple has released Final Cut Pro 4, with the biggest feature upgrade to date. Yet the price, $999, hasn't changed. More to the point, it's really not about price anymore. In Final Cut Pro 4, Apple has addressed obvious weaknesses of earlier versions, bolstered workflow, and added features that make it a killer editing application virtually regardless of price, especially when configured with third-party I/O hardware that can take Final Cut all the way up to HD editing. The newest Final Cut Pro is remarkable combination of elitist editing power and helpful tools for the less well-heeled novices.

More About Me
There are no radical visual changes in Final Cut's main interface. Most users are now familiar with the two-window—Source/Preview, or "Viewer"/"Canvas"—set-up with semi-transparent, editing-mode pop-ups to speed assembling cuts. However, there are some changes behind the scenes that can really help individual users work their own way and, thus, make Final Cut 4 a lot more practicable for a lot more users at all levels.

All of Final Cut's windows have always been tabbed and dockable, allowing you to move them around and customize a workspace to suit your needs. There have also always been a number of ways to approach seemingly every operation. Yet most of those methods and keystrokes have required users to adapt to Apple's way of doing things. In Final Cut 4, Apple has finally acquiesced: even a company this visionary cannot predict every user habit. Now Final Cut Pro has over 600 commands that can be mapped to any custom keyboard shortcut. Apple leverages the inherent skills of a computer company—like search functions, modifier keys, automatic support for different kinds of keyboards, and a visual keyboard layout window—to make customization quick and easy.

Indeed, the entire keyboard is now customizable, allowing new users familiar with another interface and workflow to keep their current habits and transition more quickly to Final Cut. It simply means that you can do what feels right to you. Final Cut 4 also allows you to save window layouts as presets, much like Avid. It supports custom button bars that allow you to group frequently used shortcuts, akin to an old Mac F-key command window, if you will. You can even resize individual tracks in the Timeline so you can see what's important to you.

In another important nod to the user knowing best, Apple has dramatically loosened previous restrictions on real-time editing. To be fair, Apple was one of the first companies to lead the charge toward software-based real-time transition and effects in FCP 3.0, leveraging the system CPU rather than third-party expansion hardware. However, getting there first left Apple open to criticism for limiting real-time performance to effects Apple was sure the hardware could always handle flawlessly, with no dropped frames. Effectively, Apple wanted no one saying "it [and by extension, Apple] doesn't look right."

With Final Cut 4, Apple admirably swallows pride and lets you decide what is acceptable or, more importantly, what is most helpful to you. No system can guarantee real-time rendering under all circumstances; by adding too many layers or difficult effects on top of one another, you'll eventually reach a point at which the processing won't keep up. However, while dropping frames isn't ideal, sometimes seeing enough, getting a simple feel for timing or positioning, is enough to get on with your work. On the other hand, make no mistake: "RT Extreme," Final Cut's improved real-time architecture, now supports a lot more layers, can be scaled to the new G5 for even more power, and supports simultaneous output to a video monitor.

More About Editing
For all of Final Cut 4's much-welcomed customization and user-centricity, Apple hasn't stopped inventing better ways to help you work. Take trimming: it's as old as editing. Yet Final Cut's new non-modal trimming in the Timeline and enhancements to the existing Trim Window are major improvements to workflow that make both rough-cut editing and finish work more efficient.

Editing in the Timeline by dragging the head or tail of a pre-placed clip may sound rough, if not consumer level-inaccurate. But what if you add asymmetric trimming of combined video and audio in the Timeline just by selecting multiple clips and dragging them while maintaining—or not, if you choose—sync? It's still rough trimming, but it's fast and not at all consumer. Final Cut also has a variety of other syncing functions for in-Timeline trimming. Control-click (or right-clicking—yes, there is support for a two-button mouse) views options for moving or slipping clips into sync. Track locks on the left of each track ensure no loss of sync. Sync indicators in the top right corner of each Timeline clip show you how many frames out of sync you are.

Of course, for precise trimming, there's still the big double window trim mode and that's been improved, too. Dynamic trimming allows you to use the J, K, and L keys on the keyboard to fluidly move back and forth over a trim point. Each time you strike the "K" you change your edit dynamically. You can also, through the Preferences, change the number of frames in the Multi-frame Trim buttons jump, now up to 99 frames. Admittedly, you're not likely to do this too often in a given session, but it may be very helpful if you switch between long-form film editing and short-form work.

Slow and fast motion effects are nothing new and Final Cut has supported them from the beginning. But, in The Matrix, when bullets fired from a gun slow down in mid-stream—that isn't just slow motion, it's variable motion, and Final Cut's new Time Remapping does exactly that. Instead of simply adjusting the speed of a single long clip for slow motion, with keyframes, you can now control speed effects just as you control picture-in-picture positioning or motion graphics over time. What's more, using the new Avid-like curved keyframe graphs, the Time Remap editor, you can slow down and speed up clips gradually—several times during a clip if that's what you're going for.

Color Correction was a big professional step forward for Final Cut 3.0, as it was a year ago for competing products like Avid Xpress DV and Premiere. In Final Cut 4, Apple has added a Multiple Frame viewer that allows you to compare color-corrected clips directly against other clips. Viewing different material side-by-side, or picture-in-picture, takes an enormous amount of the guesswork out of a typically laborious process.

Drab, but extremely important for efficiency, Apple has also greatly improved Final Cut Pro's media management by affording the user more control over determining and altering clip properties. For example, inter-clip markers and comments can yield greater control over an entire project by adding DVD chapter marks, audio scoring markers, and even compression markers. And, while those markers mostly apply to DVD Studio Pro or other Apple-only tools, there is also support for AAF metadata. Final Cut also does a little catch-up managing and automatically reconnecting offline media.

More About Audio
Audio has, arguably, been Final Cut Pro's Achilles heel, offering little more than the obligatory desktop video-centric baseline. Apple is certainly not alone here. Many video-editing companies have left serious multitrack audio editing to dedicated audio tools. Yet Apple has mixed compositing and video editing—two disciplines that once required dedicated tools—like never before, and now Apple's facing the task of integrated audio editing head on as well.

A new onscreen software mixer supports up to 99 tracks, each with its own fader, level, pan, and mute controls. There is individual gain monitoring for each of those tracks, as well as peak-hold indicators on overall master gain. If you use more than a few of those tracks simultaneously, you'll probably love toggles buttons that allow you to switch quickly between four different views or track groupings. You can use the individual faders in real-time to "record" mixes on-the-fly, then tweak the resulting Timeline rubberbanding if you didn't get it quite right. Best all, although we weren't able to confirm this, you can link Final Cut's on-screen mixer and faders to a third-party physical fader panel for even greater touch.

Naturally, Final Cut supports mixing audio down to stereo or mono groups if your computer audio system is limited, as it would be, for example, on most notebooks. And if Final Cut still doesn't give you all the audio sweetening possibilities you need, you can export the project to ProTools or another audio application. 

Final Cut's new audio features aren't all high-end, either. In what is literally a new application added to Final Cut's repertoire, Apple has given video-centric minds a way to not only edit audio, but create custom audio tracks as well. "Soundtrack" includes a vast audio library, some 4,000 royalty-free instrument riffs and sound effects, that you can mix, match, and loop to create background music combos in styles ranging from country to contemporary and rock to reggae. You can edit tempo and feel, add extra instruments or styles, and always preview in real time. Intuitive search tools help you sort by instrument, or you can add other genre libraries, like those from Acid. Soundtrack also supports third-party QuickTime plug-ins.

Admittedly, Soundtrack isn't likely to be the best solution for an entire long-form movie soundtrack, but it is a remarkably capable and easy tool for filling the holes in a 60-second spot or seven-minute corporate piece. There's even a video preview in the top left corner of the Soundtrack interface, as well as a main video track above the audio tracks, so you can match your audio perfectly to the video. Yes, video still comes first.

Just More
There's plenty more to talk about with Final Cut like increased input format support through QuickTime and the inclusion of the Compressor, a back-end utility that strongly hints of dedicated batch compression tools like Discreet Cleaner 6.0, all the way down to the split screen, Before/After, preview window. The Compressor supports anything that QuickTime does, including MPEG-4/AAC and two-pass variable bit-rate MPEG-2 for DVD Studio Pro.

The "LiveType" animated text tool feels a bit clunky and canned, with 27 styles to choose from, especially since they are surely to be seen popping up everywhere. But by including this text utility and library, like the Soundtrack audio creation tool, Apple's offering a way to get pieces of work done that might otherwise slow down a production cycle. Professionals can always go to Shake or AfterEffects, but sometimes just getting stuff done expediently is the best move. And that's what LiveType is for.

When Final Cut Pro was conceived, it was going to be software that edited as well as a mature Media Composer and composited like AfterEffects. A tall order to say the least, and early versions hit the highlights, but glossed over important details. But Apple kept plugging away, and virtually giving it away made it irresistible enough to keep the world interested.

That was then. Today, with Final Cut Pro 4, Apple's not glossing over very much anymore and is even finding new ways to improve old editing habits. What's more, independent companies—like AJA and Pinnacle Systems with serial digital and HD I/O—are extending Final Cut's software interface to a very high level of production. All together, for many, it simply makes Final Cut the editing interface of choice.

Of course, to that you might add the phrase "on the Mac," especially if you're a Windows user. Yet, to the extent that Final Cut Pro has indeed become an industry standard that professional editors need to know, it has arguably done just what Apple had hoped: To restore the MacOS to its former glory as the premier platform for serious video editing.

Apple Final Cut Pro 4
Apple Computer, Inc., www.apple.com

System Requirements:
350mHz G4 with AGP graphics card
384MB Ram (512 RAM for RT Extreme and Soundtrack)
Mac OS X 10.2.5 or later
1GB HDD space for installation

Other companies mentioned in this article:
Adobe Systems, Inc., www.adobe.com
Autodesk, Inc. (Discreet), www.autodesk.com, www.discreet.com
Avid Technology, Inc., www.avid.com

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