Apple Final Cut Pro X review
Final Cut has long been the go-to software for renowned video editors the world over. It has been used to piece together films like The Social Network and even the recently released True Grit.
Fans of the software point to its logical approach to layout and infinite depth as a reason for its success. Until now Apple has left it relatively untouched, leaving it as a highly complex program which can require years of practice to master.
With Final Cut X it looks like Apple hopes to change all that, creating what initially appears to be a more adaptable version of iMovie, but with all the power of previous generations of the software retained. So have they managed it? Has Apple succeeded in instilling its signature ease of use into Final Cut without losing any of its power?
Before you can get started editing a movie in Final Cut you need to import it. This can be done either direct from camera or using a file on your computer. It is worth noting that some files won’t be recognised unless taken straight from camera. We found AVCHD video needed to be imported from a memory card via the import from camera option and not the import files method.
The new version of Final Cut does all kinds of clever things in the background while video is imported. The software can be told to analyse for stabilisation and rolling shutter, colour balance, audio problems and even silent channels.
Imports can be managed from Final Cut Pro X’s totally revamped preferences menu, which unlike previous offerings of the software is highly simplified. Three tabs are now all that there is to govern your Final Cut experience. Editing, playback and imports can be customised to your liking. Things like background rendering (which we will talk about later) can also be managed from here.
Just like the preferences menu, the import dialogue has been stripped down to the point where many will criticise it for lack of functionality. For some the options there may simply just not be enough but for others, who want to get started with editing as quick as possible, it is a welcome change.
One major uh-oh with the new Final Cut Pro X is that projects from Final Cut 7 cannot be imported into the new software. The pair operate as independent programs and whilst both will function on OSX Lion, it looks like Apple is trying to move its primary video editing software forward.
A quick glance at Final Cut’s new look and you could be forgiven for mistaking it for iMovie. The black/grey background with blue coloured film strips and audio is dangerously close to Apple’s bundled movie editing software.
Apple have been careful to retain the standard three box approach to video editing that Final Cut became so well known for. The timeline sits below a toolbar, with an event library and clips on the top left and playback of the video project on the right.
You can preview video by simply moving your cursor over clips in the top left box. In fact any video which you move your cursor over will be played in the top right. Apple has worked some serious programming black magic here, with 1080p clips playing back smoothly even on lowly 13-inch MacBook Air.
The revamped toolbar in the middle of Final Cut X acts as a sort of quick menu for any tools you might want rapid access to when editing video. Of course the option is still there to simply learn keyboard shortcuts. For those averse to the macro approach, the one click access to things like colour balance and speed control is definitely handy.
In the centre of the editing console is a dial which shows time, levels and the percentage of clip rendered. From here you can jump to specific moments in an edit by inputting a time, or view all the tasks being carried out by the program in the background. It is a handy way to manage all the processes Final Cut is carrying out and helps contribute to the increased simplicity found across the program.
There have been reports of Apple issuing refunds to disappointed customers who have found it difficult to locate specific functions found in previous versions of Final Cut. We have to say that the layout, whilst extremely logical and simple, is such a big change from what the software once was that you may find yourself having to learn a lot again.
One massive improvement on layout is the way that media is organised. The program is very clever at detecting types of media on import, including codecs and frame size. But this is only the beginning. The software can recognise people, types of shot (close-up or wide for example), even analyse colour frame-by-frame for very good auto balancing results.
Grouping and keywords now take the top spot as the method for tracking down video clips. For those who import lots of different media and need to work very quickly, it is highly useful. Essentially Apple has introduced a much more complete and dynamic search with Final Cut Pro X, meaning entire clips can be tagged with a keyword, or even specific ranges of time. Once you have spent half an hour or so tagging up all your media, you can then search quickly between wide shots for example or scenes involving cars. Favourites and rejects helps speed things up even further, by allowing you to simply mark clips to be hidden from view, or bring them to the fore by favouriting them.
We likes the careful approach that Apple has taken to layout and media organisation. Whilst some may find the change a little too drastic and that it removes a certain level of precise control over media, we think speeding up and streamlining the process is a good thing.
When it comes to the editing itself, Apple has left a lot of things relatively untouched. The most major change is in the timeline, which takes a slightly different approach to traditional track-based video editing.
Final Cut Pro X aims to eliminate clip collisions and syncing problems by making the timeline “magnetic”. This means clips will fill in gaps when new media is added by snapping to it, or shift out of the way when media collides with it. Clips can now also be connected using a single keystroke. This means dragging them throughout the timeline will move all associated media with it.
Precise editing is where we personally feel like Apple has made the biggest improvement. Final Cut 7 could get highly jumbled up with media snapping to the incorrect place or easily shifting out of sync. Now when you double click an edit point the clips will expand, you can then skim material in the clip and select the correct place to edit from. The inclusion of what Apple has called “auditions” is also extremely useful for those struggling to decide what clip looks best and where. The timeline can have multiple pieces of video embedded within one place, you can then experiment with different clips in the same part, swapping them out on the fly.
Controversially Apple has altered its approach to colour grading. Previous versions of the Final Cut studio came with Colour; an incredibly in depth way to manage the look of your video. This has now gone, replaced instead with what feels like a much less complete yet still highly formidable take on colour balancing. Different clips can now be colour matched instantly by the software, there is now also a Photoshop-style masking function for in-picture control. The closest that Final Cut Pro X comes to Colour is in the included colour board and clip associated histograms, vectorscope and waveforms. These allow total control over things like highlights and shadow, as well as helping you monitor colour changes in an extremely accurate manner.
Effects-wise, Apple has taken things a lot more in the direction of iMovie than we expected. Whilst professional video editors will find little use for the built-in video effects and titles (preferring to create their own), we expect keen amateurs will find them a joy to use. Dragging things like an instant vignette onto a clip is definitely a nice addition, but some of the more extreme video effects may seem a little over cooked.
Final Cut X takes a major step in the right direction on the audio front, providing extremely professional levels of control over sound in-clip. The software takes the same clean up approach to audio that it does video on import, meaning things like clips and pops or background hiss are removed straight away. We shoot a lot of video using a Canon 5D MKII and a separate audio setup, so we particularly like the auto audio sync which from our experience was highly accurate, both when timecoding or using in camera mic audio overlayed with our external recording.
The levels of control over audio go incredibly deep, beginning with things as simple as click and drag fades, to the included and support of effects plugins, many of which are taken from Logic.
Once you are happy with your video masterpiece you are going to want to export it. For some this is where previous versions of Final Cut really excelled. The software has until now always forced you to take a very hands-on approach with managing media, including when you exported it. This meant a massive variety of choice in terms of what sort of video file the software would create from a project.
Very little of this has been removed in Final Cut Pro X, there is still a powerful version of Compressor that allows highly professional encoding. It is a separate download from the App Store but at £29.99 we expect many will pick it up as part of a video editing package.
There is now a much improved set of share presets included. This means you can edit a video together and send it straight to YouTube ready for watching, without even having to leave the program.
Export movie is likely the most common approach people will take when sending their media out from Final Cut. Their is the choice of using all the usual Apple ProRes setups as well as creating H.264 files. Thanks to all the clever in program pre-rendering, which takes place as you are working, exports are now lightning fast, the software simply needing to compress the video and nothing else.
There is a lot to like about Final Cut Pro X. Apple has brought in a proper 64 bit architecture, true multi-core processing with Grand Central Dispatch and GPU utilisation. They have also totally revamped the UI which whilst for some may be a controversial decision, we personally think was long overdue.
It appears that Apple has created the perfect video editing middle man with Final Cut Pro X. Whilst not having that truly professional feel of the previous Studio offering, it appears a much more balanced program. Keen amateurs who want to take their video editing further will particularly like the £179.99 price tag, which puts the program in line with some of Adobe’s more affordable offerings.
At launch it may seem like Final Cut X lacks some of the depth of previous video editing software from Apple. But it is important to remember just how long Final Cut has been around, until now the program has been a step by step build, not a total revamp of the formula. The capacity for incredible control and depth is still there and Apple has laid out a mighty big set of foundations with Final Cut Pro X, but it may take some time for the software to be adopted and built on by professionals.