FCPX vs. Premiere Pro CS5.5 for Final Cut Pro 7 Editors
Posted Jul 18, 2011

If you're an event videographer who uses Final Cut Pro 7, you've probably been pretty comfortable that you chose the right tool for the job. Final Cut Pro 7 is highly functional, flexible, and it has great third-party hardware and software support. Beyond notable feature gaps such as full-featured Blu-ray authoring, it pretty much does what that you need it to do.

That said, it's been four years since the last significant upgrade, and Final Cut Pro 7 is a 32-bit tool in a 64-bit world. Log and transfer conversion to ProRes is a foreground operation and can take hours, complicating same-day edits and other quick-turn operations. As of a few weeks ago, Apple has taken Final Cut Pro 7 off the market, so if you're expanding operations and need to add seats to your operation, you're out of luck. Looking forward, while Apple has stated that Final Cut Pro 7 will run on Lion, they've made no similar assurances for DVD Studio Pro, Soundtrack Pro, Color, and legacy versions of Motion and Compressor. Simply stated, sooner or later you're going to have to move to a new editor. If you're a DSLR shooter, it's probably sooner than later.

Obviously, Apple's preference is that you switch to Final Cut Pro X (FCPX). For many Mac enthusiasts, that would be the knee-jerk reaction. After all, you've upgraded religiously since your first purchase of Final Cut Pro years ago.

However, even a quick analysis of FCPX reveals that it's not an upgrade in the true sense, at least not from Final Cut Pro 7. While there is no precise definition of an upgrade, you would assume that the new software would share a similar look and feel with the older version, use the same plug-ins, and load legacy projects. By two of these three markers, FCPX is more of an upgrade to iMovie than to Final Cut Pro 7.

In fact, calling FCPX "Final Cut Pro X" is putting sheep's clothing over a wolf. It's not an upgrade, it's a completely different editor, and Apple is asking you to switch editors. Switching editors is about as much fun as a root canal, since you have to relearn all the workflows and idiosyncrasies necessary to efficiently produce a polished project from hours of raw content. Six months ago, if someone recommended that you switch to a different editor-any editor-you could argue for days as to why Final Cut Pro 7 was the best choice.

But now, if you want to move forward, you have to switch editors. The only question, is what's the best choice? Assuming you want to stick with the Mac as your plarform, in this article I'll compare the two most obvious choices: Final Cut Pro X and Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5.

The Economics
The comparative cost of each option is obviously a critical factor. Before looking at dollars, let's look at requirements ancillary to video editing capabilities. At the very least, you'll need a full-featured DVD authoring tool like DVD Studio Pro used to be, but FCPX clearly isn't. Figure 1 (below) shows FCPX's DVD export screen, which lets you create a single, static menu with a Play button. You can't even insert chapter points to let viewers advance without a menu. This is a giant leap backwards into the Stone Age of DVD authoring.

Apple Final Cut Pro X
Figure 1. FCPX's DVD authoring feature

If your work involves multiple audio tracks, you'd probably like to have a full-featured multi-track audio editor like Soundtrack Pro used to be. Most event videographers use Photoshop for still image creation and editing, and many use After Effects for motion menus, text animations, and other effects work.

FCPX costs $299.99, and all you get is the editor, so you're still on the hook for DVD authoring. What's your cheapest full-featured Mac DVD authoring program? Adobe Encore, which isn't sold standalone. Instead, you'd have to buy Adobe Premiere Pro for $799. Of course, then you'd have Adobe Premiere Pro, so why buy FCPX? Until September 1, Adobe is offering a 50% discount for those switching from Apple Final Cut Pro or Avid Media Composer. So, spend $299 and get a new video editor, or spend $399 and get a new editor, authoring program, and Adobe OnLocation.

If you're a Photoshop and-especially-an After Effects user, you're probably already strongly considering Adobe CS5.5 Production Premium, which includes After Effects, Photoshop Extended, Premiere Pro, Encore, pro audio editor Adobe Audition, plus Illustrator, Flash Catalyst, and Flash Professional. While the price tag is normally $1,699, the switcher discount reduces this to $849.

When performing this pricing analysis, don't forget to factor in the time savings enabled via Adobe's Dynamic Link and other integration features. Edit your wedding in FCPX and author in Encore, and you'll have to render out of FCPX before importing into Encore. All subsequent video edits must be re-rendered and re-input into Encore.

With CS 5.5 Production Premium, you can import unrendered Premiere Pro sequences into Encore, with any subsequent Premiere Pro edits flowing through automatically. Ditto for After Effects Compositions and Photoshop images. Saving one or two rendering cycles a project can add up to big savings.

Every editor requires different tools to get the job done. For most editors, however, FCPX's $299.99 price tag represents only a fraction of what they'll need to replace their legacy Final Cut Studio tools and round out their required toolset with fully supported (and 64-bit) applications. Editors should also consider the time-savings available when using integrated an integrated toolset from a single vendor.

Look and Feel
The next question you might ask relates to look and feel, as in, which editor looks most like your current solution? This impacts your comfort level with an application, and the associated learning curve.

Figure 2 shows Final Cut Pro 7, Figure 3 shows Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5, and Figure 4 shows FCPX. Obviously, Final Cut Pro 7 and Premiere Pro look and operate much more similarly. Both programs have an interface dominated by four large windows, including a Viewer/Source Window for viewing content, marking in and out points, and inserting content into projects. FCPX dropped the Viewer and uses the Preview window for both functions.

Apple Final Cut Pro 7
Figure 2. Final Cut Pro 7

In terms of project management, Final Cut Pro 7 and Premiere Pro store all content in the Browser/Project pane, where you can create bins to organize your content and multiple sequences to build your project. With FCPX, you import content into "Events" organized solely via metadata, and can create Projects with multiple "Auditions."

Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5
Figure 3. Premiere Pro CS 5.5

Both Final Cut Pro 7 and Premiere Pro support multiple audio and video tracks with complete flexibility regarding content placement. Want Camera 1 on Video 4? No problem in either editor. In contrast, Final Cut Pro's trackless projects use a Primary Storyline for your first camera, with B-roll on "connected clips" in a "Magnetic" timeline (Figure 4). Want to increase the size of your video or audio tracks, say to simplify audio/video synchronization? No problem in Final Cut Pro 7 or Premiere Pro; just drag them down. Not possible in FCPX, where you're limited to several viewing presets.

Final Cut Pro X
Figure 4. Final Cut Pro X's single-track magnetic timeline

In Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro, you apply and adjust keyframes in the Filters/Effect Controls panel; in FCPX, you do this in impossibly cramped quarters above the timeline. In Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro, you can export multiple audio tracks for editing in a separate application optimized for audio editing; in FCPX, there is no separate audio application. FCPX shares some keyboard shortcuts with Final Cut Pro 7; Premiere Pro lets you choose to use Final Cut Pro 7 shortcuts, with full customizability.

To be fair, FCPX will undoubtedly simplify many tasks for novice editors, or those upgrading from iMovie. However, for experienced editors, features like the magnetic timeline are confining, inflexible solutions to insignificant problems, an additional learning curve without a reward. Editors currently working with Final Cut Pro 7 will find Premiere Pro much closer to their current environment and much easier to learn and immediately become productive.

Legacy Project Support
One of the most significant objections to FCPX is the inability to load Final Cut Pro 7 projects, and justifiably so, as these projects represent a significant investment in creativity and effort. Apple's stated rationale for this is, "Final Cut Pro X includes an all-new project architecture structured around a trackless timeline and connected clips. In addition, Final Cut Pro X features new and redesigned audio effects, video effects, and color grading tools. Because of these changes, there is no way to "translate" or "bring in old projects without changing or losing data" (Apple Final Cut Pro FAQ). FCPX does load iMovie projects, however.

On the other hand, perhaps because the two programs are so architecturally similar, Premiere Pro can load legacy Final Cut Pro 7 projects exported via XML, and export XML projects that can load into Final Cut Pro 7. That's how I created the Final Cut Pro project shown in Figure 2. Obviously, this technology has its limits, as the two programs don't support all the same formats or features. Still, Adobe has attempted to define many of the limitations here (http://adobe.ly/m0Cviz). In most instances, you should be able to transfer compatible content, In and Out points, and supported effects, which could save days of work on some projects. With FCPX, you have to recreate all of these projects from scratch, as I had to do to create the product shown in Figure 4.

Getting back to our upgrade discussion, in terms of look and feel and support for legacy projects, it's clear that FCPX is more of an "upgrade" for iMovie than Final Cut Pro 7. Using these same considerations, Premiere Pro is arguably a better upgrade for Final Cut Pro 7 than FCPX.

Feature Comparison
Once you get by price, learning curve, and support for legacy projects, it's time to turn your attention to the types of features that you need to produce your typical projects. For most event types, the most glaring missing feature in FCPX is the lack of multicam support. That's because producing with multiple cameras is a given in most of our production workflows. It's the best way to add visual interest to any event without a lot of extra work in post, and in my view, the clearest differentiator between amateur and professional work.

For me, even more than the inability to load Final Cut Pro 7 projects, the lack of multicam support was the clearest signal that event producers weren't the primary target for FCPX by a wide margin. In the same FAQ that's referenced above, Apple promised to "provide great multicam support in the next major release." Given Final Cut Pro's traditional 24-month release cycle, this has to be very cold comfort for any event shooter hoping to use FCPX in the short term.

Beyond this, probably the most irksome feature in Final Cut Pro 7 is the inability to convert footage from digital SLR cameras to ProRes in the background. True, FCPX minimizes this bottleneck by converting to ProRes in the background, but Premiere Pro's ability to efficiently edit native H.264 DSLR footage eliminates it entirely, with a very significant saving in disk real estate. Copy your DSLR footage over to your hard drive, and drag the files into Premiere Pro's Project pane, and you're ready to start editing.

Color Correction
Given the conditions event shooters work under, most shots require some sort of color and/or brightness correction. Final Cut Pro 7's color correction tools set some pretty simple corrective paradigms: click a known white area to correct white balance, with color wheels for fine tuning. Premiere Pro's Fast Color Corrector (Figure 5) uses the same paradigms, with a splitscreen preview to assist your adjustments. Premiere Pro also offers a three-way color corrector that divides the adjustments into Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights, much like Final Cut Pro 7's Color Corrector 3-way effect, and both of Premiere Pro's effects are Mercury-accelerated, so you won't have to render to preview if you have a supported NVIDIA card installed in your system.

Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5
Figure 5. Premiere Pro's Fast Color Corrector effect with eyedropper and color wheel and split screen view (original on right)

If you've spent much time in Photoshop, you've probably encountered the Shadow/Highlight filter, which is invaluable for correcting backlighting and similar scenarios. Premiere Pro offers this filter for videos, as well.

In contrast, FCPX debuts the "Color Board," which loses the eyedropper and turns the color wheel into a plank, which is confusing to say the least (Figure 6). For example, in a color wheel, if your video is too blue, you drag it away from blue. In the color board, you have two directions that are away from blue. While I like separate shadows, midtones, and highlights adjustments, does their location in the board make any difference? What's obvious with three separate color wheels is totally confusing within the context of a board.

Apple Final Cut Pro X
Figure 6. FCPX's Color Board

FCPX's variable speed control is similarly perplexing, and doesn't appear to provide the precision necessary for most professional edits. To explain, all editing programs enable global speed changes, but most pros want to ramp speed adjustments upwards and downwards. They want the speed to start to slow on this frame, reach the new speed on that frame, and then transition back to 100% speed starting here and ending there.

With Final Cut Pro 7 and Premiere Pro, you achieve this precision by inserting key frames on the critical frames and ramping up or down from there. Premiere Pro's variable speed adjustment is shown in Figure 7. The pair of markers atop the clip are the in and out points to the speed adjustments, so you can easily control how quickly the new speed is achieved. The first pair takes you from 100% to 25%, with the 25% set by the yellow speed line in the figure, while the second pair ramp you back up from 25% to 100%. It's a wonderfully simple and easy to use schema.

Adobe Premiere Pro CS5.5
Figure 7. Premiere Pro's variable speed control

In contrast, FCPX divides your clip into four arbitrary sections, and lets you control the speed in each section, with no apparent control over how quickly the speed changes are effected or even the precise starting and stopping points for each speed change (Figure 8).

Apple Final Cut Pro X
Figure 8. FCPX's inflexible variable speed control

You almost get the feeling that the top design priority given to FCPX's developers was to make the tool different than Final Cut Pro 7. Sure, you can argue that for new users the new approach is better, but if the existing tools are working for experienced users, the new tools represent change for change's sake, different, but not better.

It all comes down to this. Like it or not, you're going to have to choose a new editor. If you're a Final Cut Pro 7 editor who shoots with DSLRs, you've known you needed an FCP upgrade for some time now; little did you know Apple wasn't developing one. So the time has come to switch, either to FCPX, which is a completely different animal from FCP 7, or to an NLE from another vendor. In making this decision, you should consider multiple variables, including cost, the ability to continue working with older projects, the learning curve of the new editor, and the effectiveness of the various tools. By all of these measures, Premiere Pro is a better choice than FCPX.

Equally important is the partnership you're entering with the software developer itself. You have to ask yourself if that company is going in the same direction that you are, if they are aware of your needs and requirements and responsive to them. In my view, Apple has looked at the event market and even the indie and Hollywood film markets and found them all too niche for their mass-market goals.

It's simply impossible to look at FCPX and conclude that it was tailored for the needs of any of these three markets; it's a consumer program focused on iMovie upgrades, plain and simple. Perhaps it will look great in 18 months, as Larry Jordan says, but that's a long time to wait for what your business needs now-especially if you've been waiting for 64-bit processing and native DSLR support for 2 years already. Perhaps, in the meantime, Apple will tack on some features to console professional users, but the ancillary and clearly essential tools such as DVD Studio Pro, Soundtrack Pro, and Color are all gone. Professional tools have shrunk from a core function essential to Apple's livelihood to an afterthought not even worth a line item on Apple's income statement.

In contrast, Adobe has a proven commitment to both professional users and the Macintosh market, most recently evidenced by their porting Audition to the Macintosh platform with the most recent CS5.5 release. The tools available in Production Premium are the best integrated on the market, and revenue from this segment is absolutely core to Adobe's profitability.

I have the utmost respect for Apple as a hardware and software designer, and product marketer-you'd have to pry my iPod from my cold dead fingers, and every computer that they manufacture is museum-worthy. But somewhere in the halls off the Infinite Loop that winds through Apple's Cupertino campus, someone made a decision that event producers no longer matter, or certainly matter less than the potential for mass-market sales to iMovie upgraders. Apple didn't state this in a press release or detail it in a FAQ, but they didn't have to—FCPX sends that message loud and clear.

Jan Ozer (jan at doceo.com) is a frequent contributor to industry magazines and websites on digital video-related topics. He is chief instructor at StreamingLearningCenter.com and the author of Video Compression for Flash, Apple Devices and HTML5.