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JET 2011.04.21 (Final Cut Pro)

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Cokes, Liz Taylor drinks Cokes, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol from A to B and Back Again

I’m not sure when I first encountered that particular observation, but I recalled John Gruber citing it when he wrote about the iPhone 3G and I had that in mind yesterday when I drafted my reflections on what it means to speak of a professional market. There is only one Final Cut Pro. The software you install is the same whether you intend to use it on an iMac, a MacBook Pro or the highest of high-end Mac Pro systems. Because there is only one version it is able to provide the same core tools and experience for high school students as it does for editors in Hollywood. In many ways this has been the master stroke all along.

“[O]n Cold Mountain, we are able to have four Final Cut Pro stations, fully-equipped, for less than we would have had to spend for one Avid station. And to have four stations working on a feature film is a significant improvement over what you usually have, which is two. It’s good to have four burners on a stove when you’re cooking dinner. You can put all of them to use. You can cook a big dinner on two burners, but you have to juggle the pots and pans a lot more.

In addition, we were able to create what you would call satellite stations on four laptops equipped with Final Cut, offload the media for a number of sequences, and continue to work. So if we ever got into a situation where suddenly there was a huge amount of footage, we were able expand out to eight working stations.”
Walter Murch: An Interview with the Editor of Cold Mountain

This strategy has always made the rumours about “Final Cut Extreme” seem out-of-step with the direction Apple was pursuing. The turnkey solution involving specialist hardware and software is so rooted in the old, outdated model and Final Cut Pro has always existed as an alternative to that way of operating. In that respect, I don’t think FCP X is such a surprise. The world has moved on and to put it bluntly, the Mac of today is not your father’s Mac. I want to work with an editing tool that makes the most of contemporary technology. I want it to provide improved tools, which enable me to tell stories in different and exciting ways.

In case this sounds like I’m fetishising technology, Ken Russell, of all people, once chastised me for working with Super 8. I was curious about alternative practices in filmmaking and was embroiled in a passionate love affair with Derek Jarman’s films. “Don’t you realise Derek wanted to work with the latest technologies?!” While I was a little taken aback, I believe his point was that lower costs and greater accessibility of digital tools provided filmmakers with new opportunities and methods of working. The tools aren’t the whole story, but access to sophisticated tools opens up greater possibilities.

You could argue that in some respects the current FCP functions in other ways that are similar to the iPhone model (or given historical precedent, perhaps that should be articulated the other way round). In this space we see Apple providing a core solution, which editors are then able to adapt and customise to fulfil a specific purpose, if they so need, with products from a rich third-party ecosystem. If anything, this particular arrangement is only exaggerated when it comes to designing systems for the high-end broadcast market.

(Announcements like the recent partnership with AJA, suggests Avid is attempting to move closer to the FCP model.)

I’ve long held the opinion that Apple need not exhibit at large trade shows because, like it or not, Final Cut Pro still has a huge presence and is featured prominently on the third-party booths. It is this visibility that is testament to the strength and diversity of the ecosystem. I attended NAB in 2008 because I knew that even with Apple choosing not to exhibit, FCP would still be present and I wanted to see how the ecosystem would represent itself. According to the good folk at root6 this trend has continued, “[Apple] had no stand at [NAB2011], yet their products were everywhere.”. If you visit these shows or work in the industry, you know this to be true and more than likely you rely on tools provided by AJA, Blackmagic, Matrox, or perhaps DVS for I/O.

“To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, and some… just people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And you know, suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camera recorder. And for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever. And it will really become an art form. That’s my opinion.”
Francis Ford Coppola, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)

I do remember where I was when I heard this prediction. I was sitting in the darkness of the Triangle Cinema, still a few years away film school and I don’t think that I fully grasped what this could mean to me. 20 years (!) later I think that we’ve all heard the stories about movies made on a borrowed iMac or the first iPhone feature. More often than not these are the exceptions that prove the rule. But what if this is another turning point? What if FCP X represents the moment the lines between professional and consumer applications became blurred in the most radical way? Let’s imagine that the bar is raised rather than lowered. If it is, we may yet see such changes manifest and the world of filmmaking evolve.

Pro

JET 2011.04.20 (Final Cut Pro)

The overarching meme of the FCP X saga has got to be the “Pro” angle. You’ve almost certainly read the articles yourself and know the score already. I’m referring, of course, to the squall of questions and unbridled speculation around whether FCP X is really aimed at the “professional market”. These claims are often supported by the “it’s just iMovie Pro” trope and filled with arguments about whether the software will really support the tool set or workflows required by professional editors. Without testing the software in a meaningful way I think that it’s impossible to say one way or the other, but that doesn’t appear to be stemming the tide of opinion — or official response.

(For the record in an interview for MacVideo recorded at the SuperMeet, Steve Martin, President of Ripple Training, who actually seems to have some concrete insight, doesn’t agree that the sky is falling.)

As the storm rages on, I’m increasingly intrigued by how the term “professional” is being used and what it’s taken to mean. If we consider how it has been applied, it seems frequently to be used not only as a means of asserting the validity of ones own experience, but also as a way to exclude and reject other sectors where media production occurs in a professional context. I’m sure a lot of us are rankled by elitism, but in this situation, I’m truly surprised that the perpetrators don’t see how blinkered and prejudiced their arguments appear.

When Final Cut Pro made its debut in 1999, one of the things that justified the “revolutionary” tag was the price. 12 years later, it’s perhaps difficult to recall how radical the departure was, but $999 lowered the bar for entry, it provided new opportunities and ultimately changed the post production industry forever. Those of you with memories as long as mine will remember well the taunts that FCP was not suitable for professionals. Back then FCP was widely derided and in some quarters, the disdain has persisted to today. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Final Cut Pro is often still regarded and dimssed as a “toy”.

One of the perks of my job as a trainer and consultant is that I have chance to work with folks from all manner of backgrounds. I meet the editors who cut with Avid by day, while working with FCP on independent projects at home. I have opportunity to train Avid stalwarts who are pleasantly surprised to discover so much of what they understood about FCP to be myth. For those with previous knowledge of Final Cut Pro, I will often advise more efficient workflows and ways to further integrate other applications in the Final Cut Studio suite. What is striking about the last crowd is that I never can tell where they’ll come from. Amongst the more predictable broadcasters, filmmakers, journalists, teachers and students, I’ll encounter anthropologists, web designers, visual artists, bankers, programmers, police officers (and their civilian co-workers), soldiers, youth leaders and campaign workers. I am never surprised anymore and it’s always intriguing to learn about how they’re using the tools. In fact that’s the one thing that unites all these people, in some way, they are working in a professional capacity with FCP to create original content. These are new jobs, new roles, which have altered the face of media production, as much as the internet has challenged and changed established distribution models. Just as digital NLE’s transformed the cutting room, there’s no turning back now. And when these people complete the courses I teach, they often come away with a greater understanding of how to work with the software than many broadcast editors. If I’ve done my job correctly, they will have an increased capacity to tell their particular stories more effectively.

As the release of FCP X draws nearer I can’t help thinking that we’re facing another shift. Only time will tell if it will be as dramatic, but history isn’t on the side of those who choose to resist it.

Questions

JET 2011.04.17 (Final Cut Pro)

I’d begun drafting this entry before I saw Walter Biscardi’s “Apple dropped the ball…” post on how dissatisfied he feels about the SuperMeet Sneak Peak of FCP X. I’d started collecting my thoughts because Walter isn’t alone in expressing his frustration, I’ve seen several commentators post similar sentiments and I’m sure you could all point me to a great many more.

To be fair, I suspect Walter might place me alongside those he perceives to be apologists, but I’ll try to explain my thoughts clearly and hopefully they won’t be so easy to dismiss.

Also before I get started, by way of a disclaimer, I ought say that while I’ve presented at previous SuperMeet events and I’m terribly fond of Michael and Dan who work so hard with their team to put the night together, I don’t have any inside knowledge about circumstances surrounding the abrupt change in agenda that was the cause of so much disquiet ahead of NAB.

Since Larry Jordan issued his now infamous “jaw-dropper” post I’ve been inundated by questions from clients and students about what’s going to happen with Final Cut Pro. It’s not so much that there weren’t questions before this moment, but they’ve intensified and this week the volume appears to have been turned up again. Sometimes it’s hard not have the answers, especially when your job positions you to help folks better understand what the tools do. But the truth is I don’t have the answers at the moment. I can make guesses based on my understanding or interpretation of features revealed during the Sneak Peak, but you can watch the same presentation and these guesses are all I have today. Which is to say, I understand that Walter has questions, I believe most of us do. At this point I can accept that’s how things stand, whereas Walter would like answers now.

When Larry heard “1700 jaws drop”, I can accept that not everyone in the room was experiencing the same kind of awe, but it seems churlish to expect more from an event that was billed specifically as a “peek”. It might require some effort to enter into the spirit of the event, but it’s futile to criticise it because it wasn’t the event you wanted it to be. That kind of expectation was always going to be unrealistic. To my mind Apple did just enough to lift the lid on a “secret” project, to tantalise, tease, and excite. Clearly the presentation also frustrated those who are desperate to know more, but it was always going to. I believe it’s our choice how we react now. We can choose to enjoy the thrill of knowing that a new version of FCP is imminent and that it appears to offer new features and ways of working, or we can grumble about not having the software in our hands today. While I wish I had answers to all the questions, I’m prepared to take a step back and wait for Apple to be ready and the product to be finished. Let’s face it, June is not long to wait. Summer will be upon us before we know it.

Another aspect of the argument that jars with me is the accusation that external work on FCP X is limited to “a couple of post houses and maybe 10 beta testers.” Walter may have good reason to believe this to be the case, but I don’t think the evidence exists to make a sound judgement either way. I would be surprised if the 3 responses to FCP X quoted during the presentation were the sum total of the feedback Apple has solicited, but I can’t prove otherwise. Anyone who has access to the software today will be bound under the terms of an NDA not to tell us what they know. It’s one thing to desire such privileged access, it’s another to vent frustration about a process of which you’re not a part.

The last point I’ll make is that we do have a precedent where it could be argued a pre-release announcement hasn’t worked so well when it comes to setting client expectations. I’m sure a lot of you attended the same demonstrations of Final Cut Server that I saw at NAB 2007. There were features demonstrated at the time that didn’t make the final release and we don’t see in the software today. I draw attention, not to imply that FCSvr is lacking (though there is functionality I would like to see added), but because in my role as consultant and trainer, I still field questions about those “missing” features today. I think that it’s quite possible we only saw the aspects of FCP X we did last week because those are the ones we’ll be able to work with in June.