Inside Apple Final Cut Studio
Posted Oct 11, 2005

For those who bet that Apple would soon lead the way in integrated multi-application postproduction suites, Final Cut Studio pays off handsomely. There are some nice feature additions found in the individual application upgrades—for example, Final Cut Pro's new multicam editing feature—but the four-tool Studio suite is much more than the sum of its parts.

When Apple released the Production Suite a little more than a year ago, bundling Final Cut Pro HD, Motion, and DVD Studio Pro, it felt like a me-too kind of offering. After all, several editing system manufacturers had started selling "suite" or "studio" bundles, all with the implication that simply putting applications together in one retail box would help them all work together more efficiently. But often it just meant that they came in the same box.

Still, an integration trend was clearly emerging. With it came greater attention to creating a smarter and more efficient workflow. And while there wasn't much integration in that first Production Suite, it's usually a safe bet that Apple won't remain much of a follower for very long. For those who took that bet, Final Cut Studio—introduced at NAB 2005—pays off handsomely. There are some nice feature additions perfect for videographers found in the individual application upgrades—for example, Final Cut Pro's new multicam editing feature—but together Studio is more than the sum of its parts.

Final Cut Studio ($1,299, $499 upgrade from the Production Suite) starts with new versions of all three Production Suite applications and adds a fourth for audio editing and sweetening. Here's what's in the box:

But what makes this Studio special is the work that Apple has done between the different pieces, letting you go back and forth between the applications, in most cases without worrying about project files, saving, importing, or exporting. There's still some room for improvement, particularly with DVD Studio Pro, but in many places Final Cut Studio functions like one application rather than four separate ones.

Final Cut Studio, of course, runs on a Mac OS G4 or G5 (the latter is highly preferable if you're expecting a lot of real-time editing). And as always with Mac vs. Windows, that's a deterrent to the large majority of users who already have Windows computers. Still, if you're serious about editing, you'll probably want to have a dedicated editing station, and Final Cut Studio is a very compelling video postproduction collection that is silly to ignore out of hand for only operating systems reasons. Even if you do most of your computing work in Windows, with Final Cut Studio, Apple makes a compelling case for you to take a look.

"Edit Anything, Wait for Nothing"

Like many marketing taglines, Apple's "Edit Anything, Wait for Nothing" isn't meant to be taken completely literally. After all, it's pretty easy to pile up layers in any software-only interface Sequence window and choke the CPU. Final Cut's timeline still has red bars above it from time to time that indicate that something needs to be rendered. But Apple has made some clever improvements that should keep most users from reaching that point too often, and that makes Final Cut Pro 5 extremely flexible and powerful.

The "Edit Anything" part is a direct result of the QuickTime architecture, now in its seventh revision and more than a decade-and-a-half-old. It's the foundation of each of the four Studio applications, and because QuickTime is a codec- and resolution-independent container format, Apple is able to support a wide variety of file and compression types in both SD and HD. The most important one for event videographers is native, in-the-timeline support for HDV, although Apple has also added support for DVCPro HD, uncompressed 8- and 10-bit HD, and additional standard definition formats including Sony IMX, DVCAM, and DVCPro 50, as well as support for Panasonic's P2 media cards.

You can even mix HD and SD footage in the same sequence, although there's a caveat: while QuickTime is resolution-independent, Final Cut Sequences are not. That's where "Wait for Nothing" starts to need a little qualification. Mixing resolutions often means that some of your clips will need to be rendered, although we found that Final Cut can usually downconvert HD and HDV footage to standard definition for real-time—if jittery—playback. Going the other way—upconverting DV—requires rendering, and, of course, waiting.

Still, special qualifications aside, "Wait for Nothing" isn't an idle boast. An important new feature called Dynamic RT is designed to give you maximum flexibility in terms of real-time playback options regardless of the power of your CPU or what's on the timeline. Essentially, Dynamic RT will sub-sample your video (as with the real-time downconversion) by reducing image quality and frame rate as much as needed to play through a sequence in real time. That often means choppy or blocky video, of course, but there are times during editing when just seeing and feeling the timing is most important, and that's what Apple is offering. And you do have a variety of options for determining how Dynamic RT functions; you can set priorities for quality, smooth motion, etc., or turn off the dynamic mode altogether. Obviously, the more CPU power you have, the better your results will be.

Event videographers are an ideal audience for Final Cut's main new feature: a best-in-class implementation of multicam editing that may, by itself, be enough for some to take a serious look at Final Cut Studio. If you regularly shoot wedding ceremonies or other events with multiple cameras—perhaps a lock-down of the altar and a couple of handhelds—there's never been an easier way to edit them all together.

It starts by literally grouping all the different-angle clips (up to 128!) together as a single Multiclip. You can sync them by timecode, in-point, or out-point. Opening a Multiclip automatically opens them all together in the source viewer in a 4, 9, or 16 matrix. Hit Play and they all play together.

"Editing" your clips is then as easy as watching and clicking on the "take" you want, just as if you were running a real-time switcher at a live event. (Yes, you can even assign keyboard shortcuts for each angle.) But it's without the stress of a real-time switching session, because if you second-guess yourself you always can go back and edit what you have done. While you're playing through the Multiclip in real time and choosing takes, Final Cut is laying everything down in a Sequence, inserting cuts where you've made them. That's your rough cut. Done. After that, you'll be editing, sliding cut points, adding transitions, substituting clips, etc.: it's all normal editing in the Final Cut Sequence.

More than Soundtrack Turned Pro

Soundtrack Pro is an entirely new audio editing and sweetening tool and, despite the name, is not an upgrade to Soundtrack. Like Soundtrack, the new Soundtrack Pro offers a library of some 5,000 sound effects and royalty-free music loops, but the resemblances end there. Soundtrack Pro is new software built from the ground up as a complement to Final Cut Pro. And while it has a professional-quality audio waveform editor interface and multitrack timeline that supports more than 100 tracks, the focus of Soundtrack Pro is not professional audio editing. Instead, it's really a video editor's audio-editing interface.

For example, while you can now use Final Cut Pro 5 to capture up to 24 simultaneous audio tracks from a professional sound panel, you can't capture more than a stereo pair at one time with Soundtrack Pro. That's surely just a first-version omission and an anomaly that will probably be rectified in an early upgrade, but it does speak directly to Soundtrack Pro's priority as an audio assistant for video editors.

And that's not a bad thing. The majority of event videographers don't usually travel with large audio panels or mixers. They're more likely to need that quick and easy way to eliminate awkward noises from video clips, try different sound mixes, or build audio tracks to go with video images. Naturally, you can do a lot of that in Final Cut's own timeline, but Soundtrack Pro is built for audio, letting you, for example, edit down to the sample rather than a fraction of a frame and do it with audio-centric tools.

Soundtrack Pro keeps the interface relatively accessible and easy for a video editor to work in, often with many of the same interface and timeline conventions as Final Cut Pro. You still have the familiar audio rubberbanding of Final Cut, as well as a waveform editor, but Soundtrack Pro adds a frequency spectrum view that lets you actually "see" the sounds and easily identify problem areas. A more feature-rich software audio mixing console can be linked to and controlled by a hardware panel (Mackie control protocol). And there's a handy Ambient Noise Print cloning tool that lets you replace unwanted noises—even unwanted background conversations—with ambient noise from elsewhere in the clip. And it can automatically fit to fill in a specific length of time without measuring or editing.

"Intelligent Find-and-Fix" is designed to find and repair common audio problems; the most frequent fix probably being finding and eliminating various kinds of hum. By using AppleScripts, you can even automate the process of sending clips to Soundtrack and finding and eliminating hum. Other Find-and-Fix options include fixing pops and clicks, should you happen to dig up an old song on vinyl that you want to use in your production. Naturally, this feature may have more limited appeal in the world of CD audio.

Second that Motion

While Final Cut Pro 5 claims real-time performance, Motion 2 truly delivers it. There's clearly less overhead in Motion, because HD clips that drop frames during playback in Final Cut play very smoothly in Motion 2, even if you twist, turn, or do anything else Motion has to offer. Motion is now GPU-Accelerated with 32-bit float rendering and uses the graphics hardware to accelerate rendering of composited clips, without image degradation. For very complicated composites, you can always fall back on RAM preview if necessary to deliver a perfectly smooth playback.

There are more than 500 new visual effects and filters, including 3D simulation with 3D rotate, Extrude, and Vignette. Those are not true 3D, something not yet possible with Motion, but they can offer something that yields a 3D look with minimal effort. There is also a lot of new eye candy in Motion 2, and it's the kind of stuff that can make your videos look downright goofy if overused. However, when used judiciously, these effects can make fast work out of designing professional-looking, custom motion graphics, DVD menus, and other background graphics and mattes. For example, the new Replicator lets you build patterns by repeating and compositing images or geometric elements. There are also new particle generator controls and presets that can more easily produce effects like smoke and sparkles for animated backgrounds or foreground mattes.

And all of that is really only a beginning thanks to Apple's new FxPlug plug-in architecture that allows third-party developers to build and add new Motion capabilities. That's just what has happened with a burgeoning community of individual Adobe After Effects plug-in developers, and it's what Apple is hoping to encourage for Motion. FxPlug takes full advantage of Motion's 32-bit processing so plug-ins can be of extremely high quality. Several vendors have already announced FxPlug plug-ins, including some well-known companies like Maxon, Boris, and Zaxwerks, who plans to bring that elusive "true" 3D control to Motion with their own plug-in.

Studio 4

Not much has changed visually with DVD Studio Pro 4, but, Apple has done some nice work under the hood, particularly in the area of encoding. Most notably, DVD Studio Pro now supports the HD-capable workflow added to the rest of the Studio.

Of course, the DVD spec does not support HD, but that doesn't mean HD support isn't valuable for several reasons. First, maintaining the quality of HD for as long as possible ultimately yields better SD quality when your project is finally encoded to MPEG-2 (quality in, quality out). Second, you can increasingly find Hybrid DVDs today that include both SD versions of content for standard DVD players and HD versions for desktop playback. DVD Studio Pro's Compressor supports HD encoding, including to H.264. Finally, HD encoding and delivery puts DVD Studio Pro on the cutting edge of a future high-definition disc format like Blu-ray or HD DVD. Apple has also integrated Dolby Digital Professional encoding into Compressor.

Apple has also seriously augmented DVD Studio Pro's ability to control GPRM values. If you've seen any of the DVD-based games that are coming to market, like Scene-it or Star Wars DVD Trivial Pursuit, you can probably guess that something needs to be able to tell the DVD player what to play, how to keep score, or how to even respond to commands from the viewer's remote. That's accomplished by programming and storing values to one of 16 different GPRM placeholders. You could do it with previous DVD Studio Pro versions, but the possibilities were limited: Apple used up some of the GPRM values as part of the interface design functionality. Now, by partitioning each of the remaining placeholders into eight parts, DVD Studio Pro lets you program interaction around having 112 available register partitions.

Four Tools, One ToolBox

Even if individual new features of Final Cut Studio's applications don't impress you or fit your specific needs, it's still an impressive bundle, for the simple reason that it will increase your efficiency. With Final Cut Studio, you can often bounce between applications without ever importing or exporting, and you never have to exit one to get to another. Often, it's nothing more than hitting Save before you toggle back.

A new Send to option in the File Menu now appears under the familiar Import and Export commands in Final Cut, and its sub-menus include options for each of the other applications, although some are grayed out in your Final Cut interface depending on what is selected in your Sequence. Send to Motion is all you need to do to open a video clip or Sequence there. It automatically launches a Motion Sequence if needed, and opens the clip or Sequence in Motion's interface ready for work. You can add an image warp, a flying title, or some other Motion filter Sequence and simply Save. Your Final Cut Sequence gets updated before you can toggle back to it. Naturally, any changes you make affect only the specific instance of the clip in your project and not the original asset on your hard drive.

You can take advantage of the same efficient give-and-take when moving between Final Cut and Soundtrack Pro for audio editing or sweetening, although there are a couple of qualifications. You can work in exactly the same way with individual audio clips, although there may be times when a traditional Save and Re-import might work better, such as when trying different audio mixes. And "Multitrack" audio editing requires you to manually substitute the Soundtrack Pro project in your Final Cut timeline, although that yields the opportunity to Open and re-edit the Multitrack in Soundtrack Pro.

DVD Studio Pro also has an Open in Editor command that automatically launches Motion or Soundtrack Pro to make alterations to motion backgrounds or sound clips that were created in one of those applications. And merely hitting Save automatically updates the menu or sound clip back in DVD Studio. You cannot, however, automatically open any motion or static menu in Motion that was created in another application in Motion—for example, to add a Motion filter or effect to a random video clip (same for Soundtrack Pro)—and that would make the combination even more powerful.

The Cut?

Final Cut's new multicam editing is a terrific feature for event video-making and it should be enough to warrant the individual application upgrade to version 5. And if you're still deciding on a system, it's an awfully compelling reason to look at the Mac OS. Naturally, if you're working in HD at all, the upgrade is really a must, from Final Cut to Motion to DVD Studio and even HD preview in Soundtrack Pro.

Yet it's the bundle itself that's the best reason to look at Final Cut Studio. If you're already working with any version of Final Cut and the other Apple creative application, upgrading to Final Cut Studio should be almost automatic. Being able to move fluidly between the various applications is almost as liberating as the migration a decade ago from old linear deck-to-deck editing to nonlinear editing. Apple hasn't necessarily blown away the competition—Adobe in particular—with Final Cut Studio integration, but Apple is certainly not following anymore either.

Sidebar

companies mentioned in this article

Apple Computer, Inc.: www.apple.com

Adobe Systems: www.adobe.com

BorisFX: www.borisfx.com

Maxon: www.maxon.net

Zaxwerks: www.zaxwerks.com