After a nearly two-year wait, the next major version of Apple's Final Cut Pro could be making its debut this evening.
This month marks the 12-year anniversary of the video-editing software, with the first version being introduced at the National Association of Broadcasters trade show in 1999. Now all eyes are on Apple to show off the latest version of its video production tools. Reports have pointed to Apple planning to do just that at an NAB-related event being held tonight.
Final Cut Pro remains one of Apple's few software applications aimed at professionals. While the company is known by most for its consumer software and hardware, Final Cut Pro has become an established player in the entertainment industry in less than a decade. In that time it's grown from being standalone software to being packaged as part of a studio suite Apple sells to pros and enthusiast consumers alike.
At the same time, its development cycle has not kept pace with developments to iMovie, Apple's entry-level, consumer-focused video-editing software that ships as part of the iLife suite. During the past year iMovie has made the jump from the Mac OS to iOS, and can now be used on the most recent versions of the iPhone and iPad, making use of the touch screen to control everything. Its development push and direction have raised questions about where the flagship, pro-oriented video editor is headed, even if Apple has suggested otherwise.
CNET got in touch with a handful of professional video editors who use Final Cut Pro, as well as competing solutions, to find out some of the things they'd like to see tweaked or added to future versions of the software. Here are a few that came up.
One of the biggest questions about the future of the Final Cut Pro has been its user interface. The look and feel of Final Cut Pro has remained largely untouched since early versions, which most editors will tell you is a good thing, because having to relearn where things are can make an upgrade less appealing. At the same time, if those changes make it easier and faster to do certain tasks, they can be welcomed by the people who use the software on a daily basis.
With the release of iMovie 7, which shipped with iLife '08, Apple changed the traditional clip-viewing system with one that would turn footage into a long series of timelines that would play as users moused over it. At its release this new skimming system was completely polarizing. Some loved it, while others opted to stick with the older version, which Apple was offering due to the new software's lofty processing requirements for users on the PowerPC architecture.
The new fear then is that the same thing will happen to Final Cut Pro, with Apple making a dramatic change that will force people to relearn how to use the software. Or worse, replace something that used to be a human skill with a workflow wizard of some sort, something that happened with the inclusion of LiveType in Final Cut Pro 4, an animation technology that let users drop in text and choose the way it would be animated on screen.
"LiveType, that was a hoo-ha," said Dave Hurley, a Final Cut certified trainer who runs Hurley Video based out of Phoenix, Ariz. He spoke with CNET last week. "Everybody was angry about LiveType, the same way they're angry about iMovie, because it's easy. Animating text used to be something I needed to spend an all-nighter animating. Now I can do it in a few minutes."
With that said, Hurley pointed out that some of the real usability with a tool, or "a shovel" as he calls it, is that the people who work with it every day just learn the keyboard shortcuts.
"Shortcuts are a big deal for me," Hurley said. "It's not so important, but I am all about the shortcuts. Real pro editors are. That's certainly the case for old-school editors."
Part of the reason for that harks back to Avid's Media Composer software, Final Cut's main competitor and one of the pioneers of the nonlinear editing revolution. It has gone on to become the industry standard for most movies and broadcast TV. To really fly on it, Avid cutters would simply learn and rely on color-coded keyboards that had various application shortcuts hard-coded.
Longtime Avid editor Dawn Logsdon, who was the editor of the Academy Award-nominated "The Weather Underground" and nearly a dozen other films, made the switch to Final Cut. In an e-mail, she and her fellow editor Laurie Lezin-Schmidt voiced a similar sentiment on the need for speed, saying Final Cut was falling behind in some areas like the titling tool, where the current one was "limited and cumbersome." Logsdon also offered that Final Cut could use a better menu system in some places, giving an edge to Avid.
Final Cut Pro remains a 32-bit application, which makes a lot of sense considering the 64-bit Mac OS X 10.6 dubbed "Snow Leopard" wouldn't arrive until two months later. With that OS update, Apple's QuickTime, a crucial component of Final Cut Pro made the jump from 32-bit to 64-bit as part of an application called QuickTime X.
Why does that matter? 64-bit software can make use of more system memory, pushing well past the 4GB barrier. From an Apple support article on the topic:
"The memory available for allocating in the Memory & Cache tab of the System Settings window includes memory directly used by Final Cut Pro, but the program loads many other frameworks, libraries, and drivers, which may also allocate memory. Although this memory isn't directly allocated by the program itself, the allocation still falls into Final Cut Pro's address space and contributes to the 4 GB limit. Final Cut Pro reserves 1.5 GB of RAM for these frameworks, libraries, and drivers and so only allows a maximum of 2.5 GB to be allocated by the user."
For video editing, this extra memory could be a boon for users with beefed up systems. In the long-term for day-in and day-out video editors, any extra improvements could make a dramatic difference in production speed if Apple makes specific tweaks to make it sing on higher-end hardware. More importantly, some competitors have already beaten Apple to the punch. Adobe has a 64-bit version of its Premiere video-editing software running in Creative Suite 5, as does Sony with its Vegas Pro software.
File management tweaks
One of Apple's longstanding software signatures is how it stores files. For instance in iPhoto or Aperture, adding photos to your library does not send them into neat and organized folders like you get through iPhoto itself. Instead, browsing through your local file folder is a maze of folders with numbers. Apple has made this a little simpler by hiding some of the complexity, and instead directing users to manage their libraries in the applications.
But Final Cut Pro is a different animal. Each project is broken up into three different strands of files: the project file, the media source files, and rendering files.
"If you just go in and start merrily editing, it throws rendering videos in your user documents folder and builds that huge folder structure," Hurley said. "It's entangled. They don't make moving projects easy."
Hurley said that this is less of a problem when people are working for a production house, since those files might be shared in a central storage system, and the software knows where it's going each time. But for smaller teams who might be working on location, or simply going back and forth between projects, users need to tweak each time they launch the program, something he's made part of his team's work flow.
"Everybody is on the same program. You hit shift F12, and we point all of the folders," Hurley said, describing the process of setting Final Cut to open from a specific drive. "We do a minute and a half of folder setting work to make the project work, this is a kludge, and it's the beginning of every project and every end."
Apple has already taken steps to improve media management in the most recent version, particularly to help users archive work they've done as well as reconnect with media that's stored elsewhere. But Hurley and others we talked to said there's definitely room for improvement.
Better Blu-ray Disc authoring
The simple truth is that no Mac ships with a Blu-ray Disc drive, but that doesn't mean it's fading away in Hollywood or in the video projects from the pros we talked to. In fact the trend is quite the opposite. "It's the cornerstone, the pillar of a new studio rollout," Hurley said.
Final Cut Studio ships with a Blu-ray authoring tool as part of the bundled Compressor application, but it's limited compared to the competition. Hurley said what's ended up happening is that there's been a cottage industry of boutique video shops that have sprung up to help cutting houses get the final product authored the way they want.
Yet, Apple would seem the least likely candidate to want to effectively help out a technology it's gone out of its way to leave out of its computers, and compete against with its digital video store. Hurley suggested that it's just too big of a need by pros to get political about. "It would create a lot of consumer, and pro-sumer and corporate convenience," he said.
One productivity feature added to the latest iMovie is people finding. The software will go through a user's clips and find clips where people appear, making them easier to categorize and pull out. Scale this up to a massive library on a server farm and you're taking some of the work off the editor to try to find archival clips.
In its current iteration in iMovie '11, the software is able to determine how many people are in each shot, as well as how close the camera is. Taking that to the next step could be actual facial recognition like in iPhoto and Aperture, figuring out who's in what clips. For editors importing a giant batch of footage, this could make it easier to categorize and split up footage without having to preview it.
Videos are tougher to deal with than photos though, as people's faces can be caught at angles facial-recognition systems have a tough time scanning. There's also the matter of first going through the footage to find candidates and training the system to identify them. Putting together such a system is no small feat, but the benefits for searching through huge drives full of footage could be enormous.
We should have a better idea of where Apple is taking the product tonight if rumors turn out to be true. Whatever Apple unveils, all eyes will next be on iMovie, the software that's had Final Cut Pro users scratching their heads for the last few years.