Moving to FCPX from Legacy Versions: Costs and Benefits

Posted on August 25, 2012

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Back to school, and already I’ve received a number of emails from teachers who want to know about editing platforms: what should they use in their classes? Is it worth it to upgrade to the latest version of this or that? What about iMovie and Windows Movie Maker? Are those legit? Will program X work with footage from camera Y? Somehow they’ve found me, and I’m happy to share my experiences.

When I answer these sorts of questions, I’m always forced to think hard about my own preferences, my students’ preferences, and as well the heated internet battles: Adobe vs. Apple vs. AVID vs. old school vs. new school vs. mobile vs. ENG cameras vs. DSLRs, et cetera, ad nauseum. These are not questions with easy answers and if you’re new to all of this, it can be very very confusing.

So over the next few days, I thought I’d address a few of the most common questions I receive and frame my answers directly to teachers who need to make a decision about editing platforms and workflows for their classes. My position generally is that of an agnostic on these matters; I honestly do not care, and my answers will reflect that. I have no allegiance or personal stake in the success of either Apple or Adobe (or AVID), or Microsoft, or CrumplePop or anybody else, and I am not interested in whether or not a high school classroom constitutes a “professional” environment. My students and I regularly use FCPX, Premiere Pro CS6, iMovie, and even Photoshop to edit video, and I’m happy to report that I’m satisfied with all of them for different reasons.

I. On moving from “legacy” versions of Final Cut Pro (v.6 or v.7, usually) to Final Cut Pro X. 

If you’ve been keeping up, you know that FCPX isn’t universally popular among Final Cut Pro editors. I’ve been using it with my students for over a year now (along with other applications), and I have this to report:

 The Good: 

  •  Simplicity. Students new to editing can learn to stitch together a rough edit in Final Cut Pro X in about 1/3 of the time it took to learn the same skill in FCP7. If you’ve got kids who are iMovie users, cut that time in half again. The addition of native support for AVCHD and h.264 virtually eliminates problems associated with having different source media types floating around the classroom, which means you can easily edit video from iPhones, GoPro, DSLRs, camcorders, and pro HD cameras in the same timelines without having to worry about nasty clip/sequence setting mismatches. I can’t emphasize what a boon this fact alone has been. This application “disappears” quickly for students and allows them to focus on storytelling rather than other concerns. (Not that those other concerns–like sequence or easy setup settings aren’t important, I’m just saying: pick your battles. My program thrives when I can hook kids on storytelling.)
  • Media management is a no-brainer. Final Cut Pro X makes media management during ingest much easier for students. In FCP6 & 7, we often had an enormous “untitled” folder in the Capture Scratch from kids capturing before naming and saving their projects. Students also have fewer “lost” media thanks to the disappearance of the “Set Logging Bin” feature, which they often ignored, and often resulted in footage going into the wrong project inadvertently. With the way FCPX keeps things organized, if they mistakenly add media to the wrong event, they can easily movie it right in the interface.
  • Speed. I’m not talking performance or render speed, which are marginally improved in my experience. I’m talking edit speed. For event coverage or videography, there is no faster way to turn around an edit. We had five cameras during last year’s graduation, and the multicam editing feature, combined with the magnetic timeline made editing that a breeze. My producer turned around an edit in about an hour.
  • Effects. It’s easy and fast to add slick title animations and lower thirds, Motion templates, and transitions. Real-time preview allow kids to more easily experiment without having to render out effects before previewing. Clip retiming is a snap, and with the retime editor, they can visually “fit to fill,” which many find exciting. So, in much less time, kids can see much more professional-looking results from their editing. And with the chroma keyer included with Motion 5, which is a great keyer, it’s easy to learn to do a lot very quickly.
  •  Auto save. Gold. ‘Nuff said.
  •  Output. The Share menu makes exports easy. If you’ve got Compressor, it makes it even easier. In our experience, FCPX exports Quicktime movies very fast (as compared to, say, Adobe Media Encoder), and we love the clear and easy-to-find presets for Vimeo and YouTube, as well as the ability to quickly select h.264 or a ProRes codec from a pulldown. Even when we have assets coming from other applications, we generally use FCPX to finish and output large projects when we’re on a deadline.

 The Not-So-Good:

As you might expect each of the above advantages is a sort of Faustian bargain. I’ll only talk about the application’s simplicity, since that will be the most alluring aspect of FCPX, but I could very easily talk about it’s media management structure, the limits of the “cool” titles, or the fact that it doesn’t play nicely with all video and audio types.

  • Simplicity. While its easy interface makes FCPX initially inviting to many students, my more advanced students grew quickly frustrated by the application’s attempt to, as they put it, “do everything for you.” We used to rely very heavily on the “Send to Motion” command in FCP7 to customize lower thirds and titles, and while “rigging” is still handy, it just doesn’t compare; sometimes you don’t know what parameters you want to rig up until you need to change them. Some of my students who are comfortable working in Motion feel that the link between the two applications isn’t quite as useful as it used to be, and many of these students have switched to Adobe Premiere Pro, due to the dynamic link with After Effects.
  • Audio. I’ve read that some more advanced audio features are on the way, but for now, some of my students feel that the control over sound quality has been sacrificed for the sake of simplicity. Last year, for instance, I had a student who became a pro at sweetening audio by round-tripping to Soundtrack Pro, which offered lots of sophisticated and robust ways to mix and manipulate the audio. What has replaced that, in the “Enhance Audio” pane, are very crude sliders that perform very basic tasks. For students new to audio “fixing,” this is good news: a single-click fix to hum or noise is for many a godsend. But for students looking for a more robust (and integrated) solution, they’ve had to switch to another application (Adobe Audition, which also links dynamically with Premiere Pro).
  • Non-traditional projects. FCPX is perhaps the perfect editing tool for interview/b-roll packages and for event videos–projects where you’re editing from a script or where the order and sequence of events is very straightforward. It’s also great for quick edits. But it’s a terrible application for students who like to “feel out” a more open-ended edit as they work. I’m thinking here of music videos, experimental films, montages, or any complicated edit that involves a lot of video compositing. If you have students who like to slide clips around and see how they work in different places, FCPX isn’t really an option. Much of this has to do with the philosophical implications of the so-called “Magnetic Timeline” (every tool, of course, embodies a philosophy). The gist: “open” timelines–like those you’ll find in FCP7, AVID, and Premiere Pro–preserve time in the open space of the timeline: you can scoot a clip “later” in time by moving it to the right. The Position Tool isn’t the same: it inserts gap clips, which must then be dealt with as would any other media. It’s a “closed” timeline. For some students, this isn’t an issue. For others, it’s a frustrating deal breaker. (And if you’re interested, you can follow a very thought-provoking thread on Creative Cow about just this issue.)
  • Precision. My students and I have found precise timing (say, to music) much more difficult and glitchy than in previous versions of FCP. Additionally, the “bubbly”-looking clips don’t have very clean sharp edges that you can easily match to other elements in a sequence. Got a sound bite that needs to be precise? Good luck: you’re stuck with frames as your only measure. When you compare this to the audio-sample-level precision offered by other editing platforms, it just falls flat.
  • Tape workflow. While it’s not nearly as slick as working tapeless, FCPX works fine with tape capture, but you cannot output back to tape without other equipment.

Overall, and despite the number of items in the “not so good” category, the transition has been smooth. With the other applications at our disposal (and we’re very lucky in that regard), my students can do pretty much anything they want. If you do make the switch from FCP7, I strongly urge you to invest in 7toX for Final Cut Pro, a great app that allows you to translate FCP7 projects to FCPX projects (not without some problems, but it’s better than nothing). Next time, I’ll talk about my experiences adopting Adobe CS5 and, subsequently, CS6 into my classroom–their good and bad points, and how we use them in conjunction with FCPX and other applications.

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