Why I Really Like FCPX

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This past January, I wrote, shot, and edited a quick video review (for the Metabones SpeedBooster). I had been sick all weekend, but made it a goal to have the review done before midnight. The product was being released the next day, so I didn’t have a lot of time. I truly believe the only NLE (Non-Linear Editing System) up for the task was Final Cut Pro X. It got me thinking about the negative reactions that still occur to this day when you dare utter the name “Final Cut Pro” (without a “Seven” to follow).

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While Apple may have some of the most hyperbole-driven marketing on the planet, they’re not too far off here.

 

It’s a debate (well, argument) that has been long-standing: Which NLE is the best? If you work in film and television, you’ve heard it, and probably been a part of the discussion. And we as humans just love to argue, myself included. Mac vs PC, SNES vs Genesis, Peanut Butter and Jelly vs Peanut Butter and More Peanut Butter—they’re all pretty much the same argument, which is to say, there really isn’t an argument. And when it comes to NLEs, there is no ‘best,’ only that which is ‘most applicable.’ And FCPX has been most applicable for my personal work, specifically the criteria of editing a video whose running time is less than five minutes with a short deadline.

I was using the old version of Final Cut Pro (can we call it “classic”?) back in High School, which got me in to this whole crazy film world. College taught and forced me to use Avid Media Composer (on Windows). I didn’t like it, coming from Final Cut and Mac OS X, but I dealt with it. Working at Florentine Films, I switched back to Mac OS X, but still dealt with Avid Media Composer. I’ve dabbled in Premiere Pro for some passion projects of mine, and have used FCPX to cut short videos for clients. So, I haven’t used them all (Lightworks, Smoke, Vegas, that weird Boris one, etc), but I’ve used the three big names, and I think each has it’s own claim.

But enough about the other NLEs, Final Cut Pro X needs to be taken seriously. Yes, I believe Apple did a poor job with the launch—They’re actually really bad at starting, and finishing things. But their software always comes around, and after a few rocky point releases (that felt more like alpha -> beta -> gold master releases), FCPX has really shaped up.

Here’s a run down of things I love—and things I hate—about Final Cut Pro X (10.0.8). Note: This post has taken me so long to finish that Apple has released version 10.0.9, but it’s primarily bug fixes, so everything I’ve written about still applies.

 

ORGANIZATION

Keywords

I really love organization. Especially when it comes to editing. Trying to edit something—whether it’s a feature or a two-minute video for your family—needs to be done in an organized way.

Avid has a classic folder structure, where FCPX has the ability to really utilize metadata, something that's becoming more and more important.
Avid has a classic folder structure, where FCPX has the ability to really utilize metadata, something that’s becoming more and more important.

 

Command + K brings up the floating keyword prompt, and you can just start organizing away. When it comes to organization, working with Avid is like data entry in an Excel file. It’s old and slow. Even copy and pasting one piece of text to multiple metadata fields in an Avid bin is so counter-intuitive it seems like they had an R&D department just to make it as complex as possible.

Here’s how you paste text into multiple fields in Avid.

1. Copy text that’s in a specific column.Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 12.23.44 PM

2. Highlight the clips you want to paste to.

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3. Right-Click (on the correct field) and navigate that monsterous menu to find “Set [name of columns] column for selected clips…” where you are then prompted with a dialog box, to paste the text you copied.Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 12.24.23 PM

4. We’re not done yet! One more dialog box to make sure you definitely want to do this.Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 12.24.30 PM

And here’s how you do the same thing, in FCPX:

1. Highlight the clips you want to change.

2. Type.

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Four steps vs. two (well, I’d hardly call it two). This may seem like nit-picking, but this round-about process really adds time to your organization. FCPX is fluid, it keeps you moving so you don’t break your concentration. Avid stops you at every step.

MAGNETIC TIMELINE

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Last week I had to get a video out for a client very quickly. A 12-hour turn around for a 5 minute video that had no script and two angles (here’s a version of that video). Meag and I used every trick in the book to make FCPX be able to output this video as quickly as possible. It was a blur, but by the end of it, I was about ready to review before exporting when I realized, “Oh crap—I never bothered to check the music edits!” It turns out that the magnetic timeline ended up saving me a huge amount of time by forming around the music. All I had to do was roll a bit of the track out, and it was pretty much good as new! I definitely got lucky with the beats lining up (mostly Meag’s brilliant editing), but with something like Avid or Premiere Pro, I’d have bits and pieces of that audio track all over the timeline at that moment (yes there are work arounds, but this is precisely the function of the magnetic timeline). The magnetic timeline may be a controversial feature (let’s step back a second and put in to context how ‘controversial’ is not at all the right word), but it really has been an extremely efficient tool for me, saving me hours of work in the end.

EXPORT

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This is the one. I can’t believe how often this has saved me. That extremely quick turnaround I was talking about? It was only possible because of FCPX’s all-in-one export. I was able to set the output and leave for another gig. I got an email that my vimeo video had been uploaded, and then forwarded the address and password to the client.

You can send a cut straight to Youtube, Vimeo, and Facebook, all with the click of a button. It does the transcoding and uploading all on its own. Now I know Compressor has some scriptability like this, and I’m sure you could get Premiere Pro to do something too, but this is just so easy. And it works.

That’s just the default. There’s a lot of ways to easily customize your outputs. Drag and drop the customizable output to the list, and it shows up on the Share drop down menu. Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 1.43.10 AM

Again, this isn’t new to an NLE, but it’s very easy and a solid GUI design. Sometimes Premiere Pro feels like a programmer’s take on an editing suite. And Avid always felt like they stopped putting money into GUI development in the early 90s.

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This is a ‘feature’ from the new version of Media Composer (7). I know I’m harsh on Avid, but that’s some slow development if you ask me. They only recently enabled the ability to hold shift while clicking in a list to select multiple items. I’m pretty sure that’s been a GUI standard for decades now.

Those are the things about FCPX that keep me coming back to use it as an NLE for quick projects. There are some other great built-in features (transitions, audio plugins, Motion integration, etc), but that’s for another post. Here are a few things that I absolutely can’t stand about it.

BROWSER TABS

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This is garbage. I don’t know what half of these icons mean when I’m frantically looking for a transition (not just a cross-dissolve, which typically NLEs have hotkeys for). I’ve been using FCPX for a long time now…actually, since it was released two years ago. It’s sort of embarrassing, but I still can’t decipher some of these icons.

“T” for text. Okay, I’ve got that one. And the little “2” in a bullseye is supposed to be Academy Leader, I’m assuming. Okay, that’s video, so probably generated video, yeah that makes sense! Okay, then the hour glass thing is a transition—but whats the thing that’s text and transition? Themes? What are music and photo tabs—MEDIA TABS—doing down here? And this thing to the far left…is that a composite? Is it supposed to be an optical effect process?

What I mean by all this rambling, is that it shouldn’t exist. Apple is often the leader in great design. But this thing is a fall from grace.

FIXED GUI

One thing I love about Premiere Pro, and really just about every Adobe product, is the ability to completely rework the GUI (window placement, sizes, etc) to whatever works best for you, and the project you’re working on. Premiere Pro works a lot like Bridge: There are different columns, and within those columns are tabs, and every element is modifiable. It’s really fantastic, and helps you quickly make a presentable, customizable set up to make editing as efficient as possible.

Just one of the many ways Premiere Pro can be customized.
Just one of the many ways Premiere Pro can be customized.

FCPX let’s you change the size of some of the window elements…slightly. It’s one big window (except for the second-monitor feature). You can close and open certain elements, but it’s really not changing much. Hopefully it works for you, otherwise you’re really not going to enjoy your FCPX experience.

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Check out that sweet customization…I can hide some windows and make the viewer all big and stuff! But that’s really it.

Honorable mentioning to Avid for letting you change how buttons look, and colors of windows. It probably works well for some people, but I’ve always found Avid customizations to be a hassle (and eventually you’ll hit an error that resets it, and all those hours of customization will be gone). Also, they’re all individual windows, where something like Premiere Pro has dynamic tab elements that automatically resize when other parts of surrounding windows change.

CONCLUSION

This is by no means written in stone, but this is how I see each NLE being utilized:

Feature Films? Avid.

Documentary? Premiere Pro.

Quick promo/one-man-band production/personal video? Final Cut Pro X.

Avid is still a ‘standard’ to some degree. Lots of bigger studios and production companies have really in-depth workflows that require Avid. You still can’t beat ISIS. It has the best media management out of anything (note: not media ingest, or export—only managing media when it inevitably goes offline). The Roosevelts, a mini-series I worked on at Florentine Films, is a 7-part documentary, each episode being about 2 hours long. The only way you could arrange and keep track of this massive amount of media was through Avid (Unity then, but they’ve since upgraded to ISIS).

Premiere Pro is noted for acting a lot like Final Cut Pro 7, but with updated technology. It takes orders from no one, and has remained codec-agnostic (both a blessing and a curse). It can take any thing you throw at it, you just need to have the right gear and know-how to make it work. It’s also an incomplete NLE—media management and other core NLE functionality is still in its infancy with Premiere Pro. If you don’t believe me, wait until you need to relink media, then after a half-hour of trying, check out the creative cow forums. It gets pretty dismal, and threads always end in “Make sure to tell Adobe! Hopefully it’ll be in the next release…”

As for FCPX, well, there’s not much to say that I haven’t already said. If you play by Apple’s rules (as per usual), all will most likely go well. FCPX still has some really crazy glitches, but most of the crippling ones were taken care of within the first year.

FCPX is all about saving time. Why would we dismiss that? I think a lot of legitimacy to our tools comes from how difficult it is to use them. If you’re constantly trying to find job security through knowing the Arcane Arts of Avid (there should be a blog dedicated to it’s cryptic error messages), then you’re missing the bigger picture of what it means to be a good, valuable filmmaker.

Buy the Right Asset Tag

I love stickers.

Asset tags are great for production gear, or organizing office gear. Between shipping out drives, going on shoots, or just generally keeping an inventory of what gear you own, it’s a really good idea to have these things. You can use the barcodes to scan, but that’s something I don’t think I’ll use for a while. I do use the numbering system in my own Filemaker database, but the most important thing for me is identifying the gear as being mine, and including a contact number if found.

If you’re a huge nerd, like me, you already have plenty of databases for your small business.

I bought a set of 100 vinyl asset tags from MyAssetTag.com about a year ago. When I got them, I figured the Vinyl version would be sturdy enough for my production life. Apparently I was very, very wrong—the image below shows you the wear and tear that my Canon 70-200mm has gone through. The vinyl tag is unreadable, and has since been pulled off.

This asset tag looks more like a captcha image—no bots will be calling me!

If you’re ever in the market to label your production gear, make sure you get the beefier versions of these tags. They’re fantastic on hard drives and computer parts, but anything you take out in the field will render the tag useless within months. Unfortunately, the metallic versions can cost about $300 for 100 stickers. It gets pretty pricey.

All those OWC and Lacie rugged drives look the same. Asset tags help you to safely mingle gear with others!
All those OWC and Lacie rugged drives look the same. Asset tags help you to safely mingle gear with others!

Placement is another important thing to think about for the longevity of the tag. Seems pretty boring, but don’t waste an asset tag by putting it in the wrong place like I did. In the photo above, you can see I’ve got a tag on a hard drive—as well as a Scott Pilgrim sticker!—and another tag on my laptop. The sticker on the hard drive is fine, and to this day shows almost no wear. The sticker on my laptop eventually wore off, so I put a new one on the lid. My mistake was placing a tag right where my palm would be, so that definitely didn’t help. Like the sticker that was on my 70-200mm lens, this one couldn’t stand up to constant use.

Even with a new placement, you can see that this tag is starting to show a lot of wear. You can also see that I do really like stickers.
Even with a new placement, you can see that this tag is starting to show a lot of wear. You can also see that I do really like stickers.

If you don’t go for the asset tags, find another way to label your gear. Rental houses tend to use a specific color of tape that they wrap around gear (stands, cables, light yokes, etc). Whatever you do, use something that’s easily identifiable (bright colors), and make sure you’re consistent. You should already have a database or document of all the serial numbers for your gear, but when you’re wrapping on set after a long day, the last thing you want to do is check serial numbers to see whose 5D is whose.

Metabones Speed Booster – An Unbelievable Adapter

This is the new Metabones Speed Booster EF to E Mount adapter, and it’s mind blowing. You probably wouldn’t expect that from a lens adapter, but then again, you wouldn’t expect an adapter to give your lenses a 1-stop speed boost, a wider field of view, and a sharper image. Yep, you heard it right. Here’s a quick video review:

When the prototype arrived at my doorstep I was eager to see what had changed. When I opened up the package I noticed a lens element in the middle of the adapter…then I saw the words “Speed Booster” printed on the adapter. Still pretty clueless, I popped it on my FS100, put on my 50mm 1.4, and noticed something strange—the FS100 was reading the f-stop at an ƒ1.0. A mistake I thought, this is a ƒ1.4…But then what was all this about a ‘Speed Booster’ and a lens element? There was no documentation on or in the box, but this is a prototype and a very niche product, so that’s understandable. I contacted the company immediately asking for documentation or a manual. I was given the white papers, and there it was: “The Speed Booster: Increasing the speed of photographic lenses.”

Turns out that they’ve designed an integrated ‘focal reducer’ to their NEX lens mount adapter. It’s basically a reverse teleconverter. What does this mean? Well, like they say, it truly does increase the speed of the lens, technically. Why now and not…since the beginning of time? Well, a lot of things have changed lately that let this technique exist. Metabones notes the 18mm flange distance in the FS100 (distance from the mount to the sensor) is much shorter than typical cinema cameras that came before it. Also, using EF lenses meant for 35mm still photography will work just fine with the .71% adjustment, considering the FS100’s super35mm sensor.

It seems like everything aligned perfectly for this thing to be engineered by some really smart folks, and it’s definitely going to pay off. When I first threw the Speed Booster adapter on, I could instantly tell the difference in depth of field. an ƒ1.0 is very, very shallow. You may be thinking, “Well sure you can throw glass behind glass, but the sharpness of the lens will be lessened because of a whole lot of aberrations and what not.” After doing some test, I can confirm that this adapter appears to not only give you a speed up on your f-stop, a wider field of view, but it actually makes the images sharper. The white papers go into extreme mathematical detail about the MTF actually improving because of the speed booster. I’m no mathematician, so I had to just see it for myself. And I did, and it’s awesome.

So, just to review what we’ve got here…it’s an EF to NEX adapter that draws power from the camera, allows you to use your Canon lenses, actually makes those lenses FASTER, gives you a wider, almost full-frame field of view, and also makes the image sharper. This adapter will most likely go on sale January 14th, and be around $600. I can not for the life of me think of why every FS100 owner using EF lenses would not purchase this thing as soon as humanly possible. Metabones, thanks for letting me review your prototype, and good luck with the boat load of cash you’ll be making. Oh, and can I get one of these to keep, ASAP?

For more info, check out Metabone’s white papers on the Speed BoosterPhilip Bloom’s fantastic post, and visit Metabones.com to purchase this bad boy!

 

Update 1-28-13: Check out this VERY rigorous test of the Speed Booster over at LensRentals.com! They really get into the nitty gritty, and the Speed Booster still holds up well.

Update 1-15-13: I shared this on Vimeo via the comments section, but I figure it could help others wondering if they should just go with this one adapter or the other.

I’ll be keeping both in my kit…I value everything that this new adapter does, but I just couldn’t see cutting out the other adapter. I could see wanting to have the crop at times, and also I’d like to use my EF-S lens (the Tokina 11-16mm) and any other EF-S lenses I might rent/buy. I think it’s important for people to keep that in mind.

Also, I always carry two adapters with, in case one fails (never happened, but you always need a backup).

Update 1-14-13: Regarding EF-S lenses, while they might not all work, here’s an example of the Tokina 11-16mm ƒ2.8 (the only EF-S I own). As you can see, the 11mm does vignette (no surprise), but the image is usable zoomed out at 16mm. I’d say around 14mm is safe for seeing little to no vignetting, so it’s not a complete loss.