Editing confusion: what’s going on at Apple and what we should do

Editing confusion: what’s going on at Apple and what we should do

Ever since Apple announced the launch of Final Cut X last summer, members of the video production community have been debating what to do about editing platforms and software. Final Cut Pro is the world’s most popular professional editing software, with millions of copies sold. In the number of installs, FCP easily outweighs the competition combined. So there was much attention and suspense in the summer of 2011 to see what Apple would offer as a replacement for Final Cut Pro 7, which had become somewhat long in the tooth.

I’ve made a living as an editor in television since 1983. (Yup, I’m old!) At my first television job, we did edits on 2” quad tape machines. I’ve gone from composite to component; from analog to digital, and from 2” tape to no tape. I’ve never seen our community as upset as it was last summer. If you don’t edit yourself, you’re probably asking: “What’s the big deal?”

Basically, it’s all about workflow. Before your eyes glaze over and you click to something else, let me explain. Computer-based “non-linear” editing started with the idea of capturing or “digitizing” content off of tape or film. This generated media files that; in the beginning, were usually proprietary to the application that generated them. The user wasn’t too concerned about what codec or name the files had; they were generally viewed as temporary until you were finished with your project. Then, you did a “digital cut” back to tape. Archiving consisted of copying the project timeline to an external disc and then you would delete the media files and move on. While there’s a million permutations of that idea, the basic concept was pretty simple and straightforward. As compression formats got better and disc space got much, much cheaper; people began to be more comfortable with the idea of video staying “on-line,” or in a digital file format. Soon, Panasonic and Sony were both offering cameras that captured images directly to a memory card rather than videotape. The file-based workflow was born, and our industry changed; seemingly almost overnight. All of the major providers of editing software scrambled and deployed versions of their edit platforms that were “friendly” to file-based workflows. However, they were still grounded in the idea that; at some point, most finished productions would wind up back on a videotape cassette. This continues to be the preferred deliverable for most television networks; although many will now accept commercials or short-form material as computer files. It’s only a matter of time before long-form submission becomes file-based as well.

Against that backdrop, Apple delivered its long-awaited re-write of Final Cut Pro in the summer of 2011. Far from being the evolutionary advance which users had come to expect from Apple, Final Cut X was a revolutionary “clean-sheet” leap from the old software. While this might sound really “cool” to many, it didn’t take experienced users long to discover some really uncomfortable restraints in the new software. First and foremost, the new software would not import project files from previous versions of Final Cut Pro. This is a big deal in an industry famous for needing quick and accurate revisions to previous material. Final Cut Pro X contained no mechanism for direct communications with videotape machines, still a big deal in any edit suite where the final output is destined for distribution other than internet. Final Cut X did not “play nice” with Pro-Tools, the industry-standard audio mixing technology. While Apple has addressed this in an update, the other, larger issues are still unanswered, and are likely to remain so.

So what’s an editor or post facility to do? As of this writing in January of 2012, there is no indication that Apple has any intention of writing a new software application for “the rest of us” who edit television for a living. Final Cut X will not allow us to meet the deliverables standards that most end distribution and clients require. While there are work-arounds that might allow one to do so, I personally can’t image using Final Cut X to achieve the output that my job requires every day. Final Cut Pro 7 isn’t broken; we can use it for another year or two; but eventually, we must go somewhere. The question is, “where?”

With respect to the fans of Sony’s Vegas editing software, there’s really only two other providers ready to fill the Final Cut void. Absent a surprise from Apple, most of us will wind up switching to Avid or Adobe Premiere in the near future. Premiere has the advantage of being free for most of us because we already own Adobe Creative Suite software. While Avid has drastically reduced its prices; it’s tough to beat free. So why would we even consider Avid? Avid advertises its Media Composer software as “the fastest editor on the planet.” As an Avid user for over ten years, I found that to be true. Avid leverages proprietary hardware to accelerate or eliminate rendering processes. Also, Avid’s interface is optimized for shared storage; which is a big deal in most network environments. Finally, Avid’s support is considered to be the standard-setter in television production. Adobe will answer Avid’s hardware with its “Mercury” rendering engine which uses CPU cycles on the graphics card to accomplish similar results. Both Adobe and Avid have dedicated fans. The truth is; both are good editors that can get your production done.

In all the noise and confusion; it’s important to remember that editing is not about technology or hardware. True, you must have these things. But editing is about telling stories, a uniquely human activity since people sat down around a campfire. If you have a good editor, your finished project will make you proud and make you money; regardless of what software was used to create it. Nobody at home can tell if your video was done on an Avid or Adobe platform; but they can tell if it was cut by a person who cared deeply about the final result. Here at Media-Comm, I have the pleasure of working with a group of editors that amaze me every day with their talent and genius at telling your stories. Come make great television with us!