I tested a beta version of Premiere Pro CS3 for this review. I am looking at it primarily from the viewpoint of DV and HDV editing, DVD authoring, and Flash export for event videographers—and of course the transition challenges and value proposition of switching NLEs for curious FCP users. I did not investigate 24p, film matchbacks, integration with Soundbooth (see Jan Ozer's Soundbooth tutorial), nor the powerful features of After Effects. I also did not go into depth with Encore, even though Premiere Pro CS3 ships with it, whether you purchase the standalone version or Premiere Pro as part of the Production Premium bundle. (For more on the bundle, see Luisa Winters' Guided Tour.)
Installation and Launch
It took a two-hour install from five DVDs to get the entire CS3 Production Premium onto my Core 2 Duo system. Aside from a warning that my mobile production laptop (a 15" MacBook Pro) did not meet the minimum monitor resolution requirements of 1280x1024 (the 15" screen is 1440x900), it installed and ran fine.
My excitement at launching Premiere on my Mac after so many years was palpable. Despite the upgrade from a 233MHz G3 to a 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo, it still takes about 30 seconds to load the application. It will automatically leave space for the dock if you leave your dock exposed.
Premiere Pro features a soft gray interface that appears with multiple tabbed sections that fill a single movable window. You can easily resize those sections by dragging the space between them. Also, the tabs in those sections are easily dragged and dropped into other sections. It’s a more polished way to deal with myriad windows compared to FCP’s approach, although the way you adjust various window sizes is identical. Once you have the screen filled up to your liking, you can save your workspace in both programs and have different layouts for different activities.
If there’s a nit to pick here it’s that Premiere’s interface is too bland. Except for a thin orange line, you don’t know what window or tab is selected when you go to play a clip. The scroll bar is nearly invisible in various locations, making it hard to see additional content in a particular window or tab. If you can’t see it, you don’t know to scroll down. Options to add more color, highlight the active window in yellow, or show the scroll bar in vibrant red would be welcome.
One innovative feature is a small scroll "wisp" that appears above tabbed sections when those tabs become obscured either because there are too many tabs on the screen or the text is too long for the window to display properly. Like your typical horizontal or vertical scroll bar, this wisp is proportional to how much you see, and you can slide it back and forth to see everything in a window. This is an excellent solution to a common problem.
Premiere let me import all my FCP DV files, even those without the proper suffix. One of my files was a reference file (no actual movie data in it), and Premiere properly searched for the original data. It alerted me that it could not find the movie data and let me cancel that search. It then properly imported the rest of the clips.
Adobe continues to use its somewhat odd naming scheme for the tools in comparison to versions 2, 3, and 4, where A stood for for Arrow, B for Blade, T for Track, and so on. In version 5, the NLE switched to V for Arrow, C for Cut, A for Track selection, and so on, and those designations remain. What is oddest is that this is inconsistent across the Creative Suite. Photoshop, for example, has an arrow it calls the "Path Selection Tool" and that arrow shortcut is A.
Another example of this is zooming in and out. In Photoshop, you select Cmd- or Cmd=. Perhaps in deference to its many users who work with Photoshop, FCP adopted this wholeheartedly in the timeline, viewer, and other windows. Premiere Pro does not. Cmd- or Cmd= changes the video track selection in the timeline tab, no matter what your active window is. This completely breaks the modus operandi of the user interface. Premiere instead removes the Cmd key (just - and = are used).
Premiere CS3 does let you choose preset keyboard customizations for FCP 4.0 or Avid Xpress DV 3.5, but selecting those only gets you part of the way there. For instance, selecting the FCP presets means T is Track, but in FCP, repeatedly typing T rotates through five different Track tools—one track forward, one track backward, one track everywhere, multiple tracks forward, multiple tracks backward. In Premiere Pro, T is one track forward—period. T+Shift gets you multiple tracks forward.
One of the reasons I left Premiere was because of wasted space in the interface. Premiere Pro CS3 (left) hasn’t made much improvement here. Under each video window is a center panel of controls. To the left and right of these panels is wasted space. If you resize the windows so they match the toolbox, then your video windows are unusably small. Why not provide a single line of tools, or right-click and let the user pick what tools are shown?
This design creates oddities like the Reference tab (for video scopes) that has a timeline (like the Source, Program, and Timeline tabs) as well as step forward and backward buttons, but you can’t play video from here. Hitting the spacebar does nothing and we go back to trying to figure out which tab is the active tab. Even the Project tab, listing all media assets, lets you play a clip with the spacebar.
While on the subject of the Project tab, it is important to note that, although Premiere Pro allows multiple sequences, and you can nest one sequence in another, you can’t have multiple projects open at the same time. Opening one automatically closes the other. This makes it difficult to open old projects to reuse effects and sequences in new projects. Also, when dragging content into Premiere Pro from the Finder, the program doesn’t give any visual feedback that it recognizes that content will be placed in a Project bin or the timeline. FCP users will miss this feature.
Early versions of Premiere had icons that would appear with a clip in the Project asset list—audio, video, or both—to indicate when it was used in a timeline. This made it easy to fill up the Project bin with assets, use them in any order you needed, and, at a glance, know what you had not yet used. Lamentably, neither FCP nor Premiere Pro CS3 has this feature. The reason the interface is important is because all your time working in an application is spent dealing with the interface. Whereas you can right-click and apply a transition in FCP, the same action requires dragging an effect between two different tabs or going to the menu bar in Premiere. Over the course of a long project, these extra steps can waste hours of time.
Feature Comparisons: Premiere Pro vs. FCP
Premiere does offer several improvements over FCP. When playing video at higher speeds, FCP attempts to play snippets of audio in real time to keep the pitch correct. This produces garbled, unintelligible audio. Premiere Pro, by contrast, produces audio like you would hear if you sped up tape—all the sound is there, with the pitch shifted higher or lower depending on speed. Our brains can comprehend consistent audio better than tiny chunks.
The titler in Premiere is better than what is native to FCP by leaps and bounds. However, it continues to be a separate entity from the rest of the interface, much like Boris is separate from FCP proper. To compare the best of each—Premiere’s titler to Boris Title 3D—I’d have to say that Premiere Pro’s interface here wins out by allowing editors the ability to see and adjust almost any parameter in one window, and to see the video behind the titles. Plus Premiere Pro updates the titles in the Program window as you work.
It’s interesting to see how each NLE integrates a mouse scroll into the timeline. Premiere Pro assumes you want to scroll the timeline left and right. FCP assumes you want to scroll the audio or video tracks up or down in the timeline window. FCP executes the scroll-wheel properly but Premiere’s interface break here proves to be far more desirable if you edit primarily in the timeline, as I do.
Also, when nesting sequences, Premiere pulls the images from the nested sequence to show in the current timeline. FCP hasn’t figured that one out yet. On the other hand, FCP’s scopes prove to be far more useful and accurate, updating instantaneously to each and every frame. As much as I played with the scopes in Premiere Pro, I could never figure out what made them update or not.
I find that FCP’s autosave takes far longer than a manual save so I often turn it off. I did once manage to crash Premiere Pro, requiring a forced quit. Even though I had left autosave on, when I relaunched Premiere and selected my existing project, it was as bare as a brand new project. Nothing had been saved. When I deliberately recreated this scenario by saving, making a few alterations, and then forcing a quit immediately after I saw the autosave dialog box appear, Premiere noted that an error had occurred, indicated that it would try to save changes, and then quit. I immediately relaunched it, after what appeared to be two successful autosaves, but all my changes were lost.
Export and Application Integration
A benefit to the CS3 package is integration. For instance, you can export Flash Video directly from the timeline with the Adobe Media Encoder, which pops up in a separate window, like the titler. It enables some useful controls, including cropping; however, cropping the left side of the frame gave me vertically pillarboxed video. The Adobe Encoder won’t automatically stretch the video, so you are forced to delicately crop a pixel here and a pixel there until you manually find the settings that enable the video to fill the frame.
As in FCP, you are forced to wait while exporting anything from Premiere. Since using a separate compression application lets you continue to work in your editing application, I wouldn’t get rid of your discrete encoding tools just yet. Also, standalone compression tools offer more image controls and settings than I found in Premiere.
Double-clicking the FLV file that Premiere Pro produced launched Adobe Flash Player, but I never got to see my clip. It just wouldn’t open. As widely adopted as Flash video is, it still remains a pain to work with. So I headed off to the web to download two other freeware players, which both played the clip perfectly. Go figure.
I also tried Adobe’s Clip Notes (left), a feature that embeds the video file into a PDF so that clients or collaborators can actually open it, view it, and make comments on it, and then send those comments back as a separate file that can be imported into Premiere and will display at specific timecodes. There are fewer options in the Clip Notes export than Flash export and, despite a default export setting of 640x480, Adobe Acrobat showed my video as horizontally squeezed in the playback window. I checked this on both Intel and PowerPC Macs and it was messed up on both. Since the video is embedded in the PDF, I can’t test it with other players to tell if this is an Acrobat, Clip Notes, or Premiere Pro issue.
I watched the video and wrote a few comments, then clicked the Export button to save just the comments in a separate file. Importing those comments back into Premiere Pro puts several markers on the timeline. You can double-click on those markers to bring up a separate window with the reviewer comments, and in that window you can jump back and forth between comments, but you can’t get back into Premiere to play the video without closing the comments window. You also can’t play the video or touch anything in Premiere Pro while the comment window is open. It’s like trying to open the door with arms full of groceries. This needs to be better integrated to work as well as it should.
Working with HDV
My first surprise working with HDV footage was discovering that "Export to Tape is not supported in this editing mode." Also, as I played HDV clips that were imported in FCP back and forth, every now and then a single clip would get "stuck" on a frame and nothing I did would free it, whether it was in the timeline, the source window, or even the little preview in the Project window. Closing the project and opening it again invariably got the clip to work again. This could just be a vagary of the beta release I tested or something ever-so-slightly different between what Premiere Pro expects to see and what FCP captured.
When the clips worked, I was able to play back two HDV clips, with a dissolve between them, from an external USB drive in real time. Premiere Pro does step down the video frame rate and/or image quality to try and keep the video playing as best it can. I was not able to find user adjustments for this dynamic adjustment like there are in FCP.
Audio and Motion Adjustments
Although the audio mixer in Premiere Pro actually looks a bit better than the one in FCP, it is less intuitive. First, you can’t just grab and manipulate the sliders; you must first set them from read to write—an extra, unnecessary step. Second, once you adjust the audio with the sliders, these adjustments are not visible in the timeline unless you specifically select Show Track Volume, which is different from the Clip Volume control that also affects the loudness of what you hear. You can’t show both.
FCP also gives you power to adjust audio in the Viewer/Source window. I was only able to look at the audio in Premiere, but FCP lets me adjust my levels and pan with incredible detail by zooming in on the audio waveforms to eliminate a microphone hit or an electrical snap.
As for motion adjustments, I found that Premiere assisted me by making the process of move, mark, move, mark easier than it is in FCP. It also assumed that I wanted a soft turn with a Bezier curve. However, selecting the clips to move, creating the marks themselves, and adding the drop shadow was a bit more cumbersome in Premiere than in FCP.
Editing multi-clip/multi-camera sequences in both FCP and Premiere Pro is still a little arduous, but I have to give the ease-of-use nod to Premiere's implementation (left) for letting me use a normal timeline to align my clips and pick my audio (on Track 1). It also provided better previews and had a bold yellow highlight that really let you know what window was active—something that should be applied to the rest of the interface.
If you’re sensing a trend here, it’s that Premiere Pro CS3 is a good tool and a worthwhile new option for Mac editors. It offers good capability, on par with FCP in many respects. It looks very polished, despite being an Intel Mac version 1.0 product (and a beta version in the copy I tested). But when it comes to needing advanced controls, more feedback, and more minute control over actions, Final Cut Pro has offered features from the outset that aren’t reflected in Premiere Pro. Premiere Pro looks good and does the job, but Final Cut Pro is deeply powerful.
Picking up Premiere Pro was actually pretty easy and, for those who want to leverage Premiere Pro as part of the rest of Adobe CS3 Production Premium, the integration of Adobe’s suite may enable easier transitions between Premiere Pro and the other Adobe apps you use (Photoshop and After Effects in particular) and reduce the transitional steps needed when working outside your NLE.
Anthony Burokas of IEBA Communications, a self-confessed gadget guy, has been an event videographer for more than 15 years. He has shot award-winning video internationally and is technical director for the PBS series Flavors of America.