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Inspiration

JET 2011.05.20 (Final Cut Pro)

Since the Sneak Peek I’ve read and watched all sorts of commentary and speculation about the newly designed FCP X interface. I’ve also indulged in both the Larry Jordan and Philip Hodgetts “webinars” to hear their ideas about what we’re looking forward to because, well, as the saying goes, God is in the details (or the devil if you prefer the dark side).

FCP X Events Library
Filmstrip View in FCP X. Image courtesy of Apple.

As I’ve traversed these discussions, one of the features that appears to have polarised opinion is Filmstrip View in the Event Library. I understand Larry, for one, is reserving judgement, because he doesn’t think it is an effective way to display a large amount of clips. My immediate thought about that is, actually no matter how large the project becomes, when I’m editing I don’t actually want to see all of my footage at once. That can quickly become overwhelming. What I need is a way to narrow down the content, to sift through my footage, so that I only see whatever’s appropriate for the section I’m working on and the handful of clips I can choose from now. That’s how I’ve been working with Final Cut Server and the new tools in Final Cut Pro X seem to extend this concept further.

Of course for a lot of people the immediate point of reference for the Event Library is iMovie which includes dynamic filmstrips and skimming processes similar to those demonstrated in FCP X. I think that can nudge people towards feeling it lacks the gravitas required of a serious NLE. While I see that connection too, there’s something else, or more specifically, someone else that comes to mind.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Walter Murch speak on a few occasions and the honour of attending a special Master Class he taught a few years ago in Vancouver. You might argue that his approach is particularly idiosyncratic (whose methods aren’t when judged from the outside?), but I think we must all agree that his contributions to contemporary cinema are profound and there’s no-one more insightful, illuminating or provocative on the subject of editing films today.

You’ve probably already seen documentation of the “picture boards” Walter has mounted around his cutting room. Essentially they consist of vast collections of frames from the film he’s working on. Each image on the boards is intended to represent a significant aspect of the shot it’s taken from. The idea is that the boards facilitate a change in the editor’s viewpoint. From the vantage point afforded by this shift in perspective, the editor has the chance to make different casual connections or observe unexpected patterns in the footage.

Walter Murch and his photo boards
Charles Koppelman, “Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain with Final Cut Pro and What this Means for Cinema” New Riders, 2004, p. 2.

In his 2004 book “Behind the Seen” Charles Koppelman describes the philosophy behind the picture boards in some detail:

“Ironically, the more techno-centric film editing gets the more powerful Murch’s custom-made innovations become. The organic qualities of the scene cards and photo boards compensate for perspectives that are hidden in the digital world. The efficiency, speed and increased choices of non-linear editing all have their benefits. But systems like Avid or Final Cut Pro obliterate some film editing tasks that contribute to the editor’s creative process. As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him the chance to see footage in another context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas. With random-access, computer-based editing, a mouse click instantly takes the editor right to a desired frame; there is no waiting, no downtime—and fewer happy accidents. The photo boards are one way to compensate for this.”
Charles Koppelman, “Behind the Seen: How Walter Murch Edited Cold Mountain with Final Cut Pro and What this Means for Cinema” New Riders, 2004, p. 142-143.

The serious editors amongst you might baulk at an idea as fluffy or new-age-sounding as “happy accidents” but when I’m feeling stuck anything that will help me breakthrough the block is a godsend. What I like about the picture boards — and I like them very much — is that they’re about changing how we view and understand the material we work with. They’re designed to spark our imagination, shift our perspective and in doing so inspire new ideas.

As demonstrated at the SuperMeet, the Event Library, through a multitude of features is intended to accelerate the editing process and provide that instant access to which Murch and Koppelman refer. While Filmstrips are clearly part of that re-imagined workflow, I also think that we’ll be able to use them to stimulate our creative process.

Libraries

JET 2011.05.10 (Final Cut Pro)

It’s difficult to know where to begin with the subject of media libraries. The topic is huge. For film and video producers, it’s perhaps one of the most significant matters we have to consider. It’s such a big issue, I don’t think it’s something I can, or should, attempt to address in a single post. So be warned, I suspect that this will become a theme I’ll return to again and again and again.

Creating a back-up of your data is one thing, we can all copy data and stockpile drives, it’s creating a searchable archive and keeping your data available that’s the real trick. Though often a much larger, more involved operation, creating a searchable library will extend the life of your work. As Nick from Object Matrix is wont to say, “if you can’t find it, you haven’t got it.” (If Nick ever tries this line on you, tell him from me that he owes you a drink. Though if you’re glancing sideways at the mountain of drives you’ve accumulated, I suspect you already know it’s time to act and you might want to consider buying him one…)

Before we go any further, it might be worth taking a moment to provide some context to help you understand how this all started for me and why I feel the way I do. Moving pictures are my passion. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. (Given that you’re reading this post, chances are you’ve also spent a good many hours/days/weeks/years in darkened rooms, gazing up at the silver screen so you can appreciate what I’m talking about.) I chose to study film theory at university because I wanted to learn not just about how films are made, but the history of the medium, the development of different forms and how cinema affects our lives. As a young scholar there was a devastating moment where I discovered that what we understand as early film is such a small percentage of all the films that were made. These missing films have been “lost forever“. While we can all enjoy stories about rescued episodes of Doctor Who and the like, the reality is quite bleak. Moving forward the onus is on us to take the steps necessary to preserve our moving picture heritage.

Entities like the BBC Archive are one thing, but I have conversations about the long-term preservation of media with clients of all shapes and sizes. If our stories are to live on, it’s absolutely vital we consider how digital media assets are stored and accessed. There are tools out there, tried and true solutions, but the cost of establishing and maintaining a comprehensive and secure catalogue can be prohibitive. Indeed Larry Jordan recently lamented the lack of an affordable, user-friendly archive for smaller independent production companies. It becomes especially difficult to raise this matter in meetings when cost is the obstacle. As much as I might like to believe that expense is relative, the stark reality is that some companies are not in a position to make the necessary investment. Instead they gamble on the ubiquitous drive-on-the-shelf method. Only today I met a fellow who told me he’d think about an archive “in the future”. When I explained to him that actually it would be more prudent to address the issue now before he’s faced with a large amount of media and limited resources to process it all. He took my point, but may not act on it. It may seem trite, but when it comes to archives, it really is important to start as you mean to go on!

While we can discuss the merits and vagaries of different LTO, disk or Cloud based solutions for the media industry, we ought to acknowledge that the problem really extends a lot further. That is to say for many of us the situation permeates our home lives too. I’m sure I’m not the only one of us to have had a chat with family members about how to best preserve and manage photos or home movies. And if our mothers are asking, I think we can all agree the issue is pervasive!

So what can we do? And how does all this relate to Final Cut Pro X?

When it comes to the next version of FCP, Philip Hodgetts makes a convincing argument about why metadata is the key ingredient to help us establish and organise media libraries. More recently Alex Gollner has presented his theories about how FCP X could store information in a searchable, sharable database. I can’t help thinking those who have experience of the “digital lifestyle” applications have a bit of a jump on those of us who’ve only worked with Final Cut Pro (as we know it today). I don’t just mean iMovie editors either, for example folks who use iPhoto to organise and manage their picture libraries already understand about metadata tagging (date, location and face detection). They’re likely to have experience of sifting and sorting in a variety of ways and of using Smart Albums to create dynamic collections. As I’ve written before, from watching the SuperMeet Sneak Peek it very much looks like variations of these tools have been integrated into FCP X.1

I know too many organisations that have valuable footage bundled into a cupboard or strewn across portable hard drives. Whenever someone is tasked with finding a specific clip, the mission may well be delivered on exploding tape. But if you take the time to tag your media with appropriate keywords, it becomes so much easier to find the footage you’re looking for, not just when you need it for the current edit, but in the future too. Metadata in this context becomes about extending the life of your work, keeping your media accessible and creating additional value.

A library isn’t just about the media we will create however, if we’re to avoid a repeating past mistakes, it ought to include the media we’ve already acquired. It’s on this point that I struggle most with the “tape is dead” argument. If we look to the past of video production it involves huge amounts of tape. It’s not just the broadcasters or established media organisations, this issue effects everyone with a home movie collection. Philip may contend, “[d]ropping old technology and moving to new” is in the DNA at Apple, but I wholly disagree that tape capture offers no “benefit… [to] the vast majority of FCP users in 2012.” Given the stakes involved, the shared heritage that would be otherwise jeopardised, we need the ways and means to work with tape. When I look at iLife those applications seem to be designed to embrace our human tendencies and help us find more efficient, elegant and fun ways to be creative, to manage our media and protect the files we value most. I’ll be intrigued to see if FCP X is disposed to take us down a similar path next month.

1. Those familiar with iPhoto will have also encountered a button with the magic wand icon before…

iPhoto Enhance button

[Disclaimer: I have no idea whether the magic wand visible in the FCP X Sneak Peek also means “enhance.”]

Disruption

JET 2011.04.26 (Final Cut Pro)

On the basis of the now infamous “Sneak Peek” I think that it’s fairly safe to conclude Final Cut Pro X is about to challenge our assumptions and expectations about the process of non-linear editing. The idea that all the tools we use today will disappear or be revised beyond recognition strikes me as absurd, but I’m prepared to stand corrected. For those of you suffering conniptions at the thought that we’ll lose the “core functionality” we’ve grown to love, I can only say that I don’t actually recall How-to-export-an-OMF receiving prominence in any previous demonstrations of FCP, yet that particular option has been available for a while. Perhaps the answer will be that it is there, but it’s not really that new, different or exciting and therefore it didn’t make the presentation shortlist… (A little bit like Radiohead deciding to drop “Creep” from their live set because they’ve a new album out…)

Such is the price of innovation.

The truth is that we all know the score. You don’t need me to rehash the details. While you might still be smarting about the Xserve, I doubt you’re still upset at the loss of your floppy drive. Overall I believe the gains have tended to outweigh the losses. What is it they say about hindsight? Will you lament the obsolescence of FireWire should Thunderbolt deliver on its promise? Really?

Back in 2002, when FCP won a Primetime Emmy Engineering Award, Steve Jobs reflected that,
“Final Cut Pro has democratized professional video editing by bringing the capabilities of a $50,000 editing bay to everyone for under $1,000…” Today we all know that this wasn’t hyperbole. Whatever your thoughts on the current situation, you can’t deny that Final Cut Pro has had a profound impact on the world of post-production. The arrival of FCP not only provided new opportunities for filmmakers, but it challenged the existing models and practices of a well-established industry. While there are pockets that still cling to the old methods, the wider norms have changed and a new generation of post-production professionals has emerged. Even if you disagree that the changes were so dramatic, on a micro-level, without FCP, do you think we would have a strong Premiere Pro today or a software-only version of Media Composer? The release of Final Cut Pro marks a disruptive moment of innovation in the history and technology of post-production.

It is worth noting that we’ve seen similarly bold challenges made with other Pro Apps too. It might be difficult to recall that DVD authoring was a largely byzantine and prohibitively expensive practice before the introduction of DVD Studio Pro. By offering a relatively straightforward interface and toolset, working with DVDSP meant you no longer needed to be an engineer or pour over the DVD Specification to understand the process. The release of Shake for Mac OS X created new opportunities for visual effects houses as suddenly you didn’t need high-end, proprietary systems to create the most intricate and sophisticated effects. I probably don’t need to remind you about the changes to the world of grading wrought by Color. All told they could be as significant as the impact of FCP. Silicon Color’s Final Touch, at $25000 was something of a revelation, but the integration of Color in Final Cut Studio has enabled a different kind of workflow and quality of finishing that was previously only available at the top end of the market. Even the ancillary tools, panels and monitors, are available for a fraction of the price you would have been required to spend only 5 years ago. Most recently, with the toolset provided by Final Cut Server, Apple is providing a robust solution for media asset management at a fraction of the cost of competing products. These tools change business models and collectively they have reshaped a large portion of the industry, as well as opening opportunities in new areas of media production.

Of course this kind of “disruptive innovation” is precisely what Apple is known for. If all of the applications disappeared today, as the rumours have so often suggested, the world has already been transformed. I don’t think we’ll ever return to the old model. I’d like to believe that Avid understand this. Certainly I think the arrival of Nuke, Smoke for Mac and DaVinci Resolve suggest that other companies are looking for ways to further enrich the market and engage a wider crowd. But the Pro Apps do not seem to be in any danger of disappearing soon. So what is Apple to do now? How do you think the folks in Cupertino will respond to the emergence of all these new tools and opportunities? The answer, it would seem, begins with Final Cut Pro X. A new tool that embraces the latest technologies in Mac OS X. This release appears designed to set a new benchmark, to once more rewrite the rules, to innovate and disrupt the norm. In order to do this Apple will need to look beyond the established habits of the existing user base. If you think about progress of the application in these terms, you’ll understand that the developers have to. Come June you may look at FCP X and wonder where to start, but if you’re willing to adapt your methods, I suspect that before long you’ll find you can suddenly do so much more. You might then wonder what all the fuss was about, but hopefully you’ll be too busy editing.

As release of Final Cut Pro X approaches, take a moment to survey the current landscape of creative applications that are used within the post-production industry. I think that you’ll agree the legacy of Apple Professional Applications is evident. Yet even as the reverberations of the first seismic shift are still being felt, Apple appear ready to disrupt everything again.