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Friday, January 28, 2022

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Film School Confidential: The Saga of Final Cut Pro X

Last week, Apple released their new editing software, Final Cut Pro X. Why the jump from 7 (the last version of Final Cut) straight to 10? This is just one of the many questions and issues Apple left unanswered when they revealed their new product. Touted by Apple as the “future of editing” and heavily promoted by them in the months leading up to its release as a “revolution” in editing, its release was met with bells and whistles all around the world. But for professional filmmakers and editors, this release turned out to be a bomb-dropping of atomic proportions: A surprise left-hook that came out of the blue and that caught the entire professional editing world unawares, unprepared for the shocking revelation that Final Cut Pro X is essentially a glorified version of iMovie, not revolutionary in any way, and – furthermore – actually a step backwards in terms of its features.

Over the last few years, Final Cut Pro 7 became the industry standard for professional film editing. It was the most widely used editing software, offering a very wide variety of features tailor-made to fit the needs of an extremely eclectic and widely different group of professional editing needs. Many very high-profile and successful feature films were edited on the program, including most recently True Grit and The Social Network; but it was also used for everything from television shows and commercials to news agencies, instructional videos for companies, government agencies, and everything in between. Although it had many drawbacks and was extremely complex to master, FCP 7 established itself as the industry standard, and for just reason. So when Apple announced the new features in Final Cut Pro X, understandably, the editing world rejoiced. Very cleverly, Apple touted the new features in FCP X that would streamline the workflow and fix all of the issues many users were experiencing with FCP 7.

Except this turned out to be one big act of deception on Apple’s part. Touted as the new industry standard and the future of professional film editing, when FCP X was first released and users began testing it out for the first time, it became apparent very early on that FCP X was specifically designed to tailor to the prosumer market, while pretty much completely alienating professional users by removing many of the features that made FCP 7 so key for professional video editing. I won’t go too far into the technical details because these things tend to get very dense, and there are a great many features that have been tossed around the internet this past week as drawbacks to the platform that I don’t fully understand myself. Suffice it to say that there are three main features that are key to professional editing that are not present in FCP X. The first is the ability to export directly to tape formats. Apple explains that the future of editing is in digital formats, and this is true. However, tape formats are far from dead. Tapes are still used on a regular basis in news television, documentary film and television, government agencies and even many film festivals that prefer high definition digital tape submissions over disc submissions, for various reasons. Obviously, FCP X’s lack of support for tape formats is excluding a very formidable sector of professional editing, and this is crucial.

The second missing feature is the ability to export in special cross-platform formats such as XML or OMF that allow to import video timelines into other programs for additional post-production work, such as 3D graphics rendering programs (for SFX needs), or professional sound editing programs. Again, Apple excuses this by explaining that they are attempting to streamline the editing process by putting all post-production needs in one program. However, what this actually means is that Apple are attempting to forcibly claim a monopoly over post-production by ostracizing other post-production programs from rival companies that offer much better resources than Apple’s own programs do. By attempting to centralize the process within FCP X, Apple are essentially trying to block out rival programs and tout their own. The result is that people who have dedicated their lives to working with programs such as Pro Tools (professional sound mixing and editing), or Maya and After Effects (3D rendering and other visual effects) are pretty much going to be out of a career.

The third and possibly most crucial feature is that FCP X does not support any projects created in FCP 7 or any other previous versions of the software. Almost every new version of software at least offers the option to open projects created with previous versions of the product – think of all the various incarnations of Microsoft Office over the years, all of which are back-compatible with files created in previous versions and even offer the option of saving files in older formats. But FCP X allows for no such thing. Basically, any and all previous projects created in FCP 7 are not compatible with FCP X. So if David Fincher wants to re-open the FCP 7 edit of The Social Network and tweak something for a future home video release, he will have no ability to do so in FCP X. The project files created in FCP 7 are as good as gone. This is especially problematic for companies that have constant need to re-visit previously created material, such as advertising firms. The incompatibility of FCP X with previous versions essentially means that all of these previous projects are completely inaccessible.

So why not just stick with FCP 7? This is actually the course of action adopted by many companies around the world, including the film school here at NYU and many other film schools as well. Out of sight out of mind seems to be a policy that works in cases like these. However, this can only go so far, since not only did Apple stop selling FCP 7 in stores, they ceased support for the program all together. All of the FCP 7 support resources online on the Apple website are no longer there – they all direct you to the app store to purchase FCP X. The arrogance of a move like this is staggering. This in itself is not uncharacteristic of Apple – however, releasing a half-finished program that does not cater to the needs of many of the professionals around the world who rely on it. What is sad about this whole situation, and what has been the irk of many industry professionals who built their lives around Final Cut, is that Apple completely misled its customers as to its intentions with FCP X. Had they merely stated in advance that they were intending on releasing a broader, prosumer-geared product that explicitly does not cater to many of the professional needs, perhaps the damage could have been less severe. But as it is, Apple essentially gave its entire professional customer base a giant middle finger, and so far, has been refusing to do any significant damage control.

The future of this saga remains to be seen. The potential of FCP X as a great editing platform is certainly there, and I’m sure that with a few more years of development, Apple will manage to re-integrate all of the essential features professional editors need. However, as of now, Apple really dropped the ball on this release, and have taken no steps to reassure their professional customer base that their needs will be met. Even if Apple make the necessary changes to the program, will any professional editors still choose to remain loyal to Apple? Or will allegiances have shifted to rival programs such as Premiere Pro or Avid. As of now, NYU is sticking with FCP 7. Hopefully, Apple will come to their senses and at least re-instill support for that older version until they fix all of the problems with the new one. We shall wait and see.

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