Video editing software is much the same way. Choosing the tool that's right for you depends on several things; two of the most important are where you're starting as an editor, and—even more important—where you're going.
In EMedia and EventDV, we've tended to describe what many publications call "consumer" NLEs as "entry-level" editing software. "Entry-level" is a useful term in some respects, since it does distinguish consumer-oriented products that are genuine timeline-based video editors (like Pinnacle Studio and Ulead VideoStudio) from "automatic" video software like muvee's autoProducer, which is fascinating from an application design perspective but doesn't leave much room for growth on the user's part. And entry-level does, at least, suggest some notion of upward mobility, advancing the aesthetic or technical accomplishment of your video work, if not its purpose (say, from hobbyist to professional, or from part-time/occasional/ departmental videographer to independent/full-time).
And the fact is, most of the tools we typically describe as "entry-level" won't get you very far if you're trying to make the jump from hobbyist to pro; the competition is just too strong. A lousy craftsman blames his tools, but superior tools will get you a long, long way, while the wrong tools won't even get you to the bench when all your competition's got professional equipment designed for professional use.
But let's say you're a tech-savvy novice, and though you don't have a pro's experience or budget, you have a pro's acumen. You know you can hit the ground running in the event video field, even if it's only a half-dozen events per year, but you really need to watch your pennies as you go. Maybe you can't afford Final Cut Pro or Vegas, but you're too ambitous and too quick a learner to start with a tool that's functionally, arguably, a dead end. What you need is software that's built for a pro, but sold at consumer-level pricing, with selected reductions in feature sets accounting for the difference. Apple Final Cut Express, designed and marketed as just such a tool, represents a sort of platonic ideal for a class of software that might best be described as "Pre-Pro NLEs." Two high-profile products released in fall 2004, Adobe Premiere Elements and Sony Pictures Movie Studio 4.0, also bear close examination as pre-pro contenders. Meanwhile, two other longstanding products, Pinnacle Systems' Studio Plus and its newly upgraded Liquid Edition 6, represent the separatist approach, which in its own way tells us as much about the pre-pro class as the tools that actually fit the bill.
What it is, and What it isn't
Pinnacle Systems' software NLE line, partly upgraded this fall, provides an extreme example of a non-pre pro approach that works extremely well, yet also illustrates how distinct and non-sequential consumer and pro software from the same vendor can be. The two Pinnacle tools that have been reviewed in EMedia—the "consumer" Studio and the "pro/ prosumer" Liquid Edition—have earned high marks each time we've tested them [see Jan Ozer's Liquid Edition 6 review in this issue, pp. 26-29]. Though they play for the same team, they have little in common (neither came up through the Pinnacle farm system, to extend the baseball metaphor) in terms of interface. The Pinnacle development team has enhanced them with some similar capabilities (like the auto color-correction feature found in both Edition and Studio Plus), but by and large Studio does little to prepare its users for Edition if they're considering making the jump. Sure, Studio introduces you to the concepts of capturing and importing video assets, working with them in a timeline, and applying titles and effects and transitions within that paradigm. Studio also shows off Pinnacle's ingenious concept of authoring DVDs from the timeline.
But anybody who has a chance of making it as a pro videographer could pick up these general concepts anyway and, more to the point, would still be starting basically from scratch with the Edition interface, which is no mean feat. It's like jumping from Star Gazing 101 to NASA. With all due respect to Studio 9, which I hold in high esteem, it just doesn't work that way.
Apple, by contrast, took the opposite approach in 2003 when it introduced Final Cut Express as a sort of junior version of Final Cut Pro. With Final Cut Express, you got the Final Cut interface, the Final Cut effects engine, and much of the Final Cut Pro palette for $299—$700, or the full price of Premiere Pro, less than the MSRP of Final Cut Pro. Besides an attractive upgrade deal, you also got the opportunity to make an entirely seamless Express-to-Pro transition. You go in knowing the interface, and you can even touch up your old FCE projects in FCP (although you can't go back—or rather, you can't take your FCE project back to FCE after you've modified it in FCP). What you don't get are things like Compressor, Apple's powerful encoding engine; Offline RT mode; waveform and vectorscope controls; non-DV capture options; and Apple's Soundtrack audio tool, although it's compatible with FCE and available as a $239 add-on.
Given the timing of Apple's Final Cut Express release—almost coincidental with Adobe Premiere's defection from the Mac platform—the move raised questions about why they were doing it, if not simply to fill in the space left vacant by Premiere or provide a lower-cost alternative to prevent Mac-based Premiere users from jumping to Windows. In the pre-pro context, FCE makes much more sense. iMovie serves its market admirably, and its audience is a captive one (since it ships with most Macs), but by and large it's not an upwardly mobile one. FCE, by contrast, is a perfect fit for pros who want to do pro work but don't need all the power of FCP and don't want to shell out $999 to get it.
Another candidate for the pre-pro category is Avid's Free DV. Maybe Free DV qualifies as the monastic ideal in this space simply because there's something essentially chaste about it. It's a free, non time-limited download that completes Avid's commitment to using, essentially, the same interface throughout its entire range of video tools, which extends from Final Cut-level desktop editing software (Xpress DV, Xpress Pro) up to the highest-level of Emmy-winning broadcast and film editing and finishing systems (Media Composer, Symphony, etc.). Assessing the accessibility of the Avid interface is beyond the scope of this article; what's most interesting here is that you'll find that interface in Free DV, albeit with its capabilities somewhat hamstrung. If Avid's goal is to circulate Free DV as a teaching tool, to give students of video post-production a product they can practice on, it's ingenious, especially since it doesn't expire in a month like the "free" versions of other tools. And despite its price, Free DV is anything but a consumer product; I'm not sure most consumers could even figure out how to download it, based on the wealth of such complaints to be found on the Web (I failed on two machines, and couldn't even install the version Avid sent me, although I finally got it up and running off the download on a third machine).