Edit Review: Apple Final Cut Studio 2
Apple Final Cut Studio 2 is like the proverbial elephant and the blind man — your impression depends upon where you touch it. For this review, I'll touch Final Cut Studio 2 where I live and practice in the world of DV and HDV — not uncompressed HD and 4K — with an emphasis on getting long-form tutorials, weddings, and concerts done efficiently and well, rather than wreaking the last bit of potential creativity from a well-funded 60-second spot or full-length movie.
Fortunately for me, and those who join me in this space, there's a lot to like about Final Cut Studio 2. Let me touch on some relatively self-explanatory items, and then dig into what I see as the most significant components of the new suite. I'll focus on Final Cut Pro, Compressor, and Color. (For more on Motion 3, see Frank McMahon's review on p.30 of this issue, and look for Gary Eskow's review of Soundtrack Pro in an upcoming issue.)
For the record, I tested on a to-die-for Mac Pro with two 3.0GHz dual-core Intel Xeon processors with 8GB of RAM and an ATI Radeon X1900 driving one 23in. Apple Cinema display. The Matrox MXO drove the preview monitor, providing high-quality, realtime previews free from the interlacing artifacts displayed in Final Cut Pro's native preview window. Let's jump into the key new features in Final Cut Pro 6.
Previous versions of Apple Final Cut Pro had problems handling clips with differing formats on the same timeline, which manifested in slow preview, potential aspect ratio distortion, and occasional instability. A common workaround was to convert all clips to a common format beforehand, which created a workflow hassle and consumed lots of disk space.
In Final Cut Pro 6, once you choose a preset for your sequence, you can add clips of nearly any resolution, format, frame rate, or standard (NTSC or PAL) with realtime preview. Final Cut Pro 6scales the clip upwards or downwards as necessary to fit the resolution and aspect ratio of the sequence, adding letterboxes rather than distorting or cutting the clip. No conversion takes place until rendering; everything simply works in realtime. If you're working with mixed formats, this feature alone more than justifies the upgrade price. Unfortunately, however, you'll still need clips with identical formats to use the program's excellent multi-cam interface.
Next up on my Final Cut improvement list is Motion 3 master templates, which enable simple drag-and-drop, customizable titling. Apple includes a number of templates with the program, which you can customize with your own images via drop zones and, of course, your own text. However, you can't change font characteristics in Final Cut Pro — you have to modify these in Motion. More importantly, you can create your own templates in Motion for use in Final Cut Pro, providing an easy mechanism for branding or even project differentiation.
Also big is Final Cut's new SmoothCam filter, which borrows technology from Apple Shake to remove the shakes from your video. To use the filter, first you drag it onto the clip and let Final Cut Pro analyze the motion. Once that's complete, you can adjust all parameters, such as scaling and smoothness, in realtime to optimize your results. I've been using the same test clips to test features such as this for several years, and SmoothCam does the best job I've seen of minimizing shakes without distortion, and it is certainly a vast improvement over Final Cut Pro's former image-stabilization filter.
There are some gotchas however. You can't apply the filter to a non-QuickTime clip, and you won't get an error message explaining why. I spent about 20 frustrated minutes wondering why Final Cut Pro wouldn't apply the filter to my test AVI files, then I read the manual, converted them to MOV, and got great results.
More seriously, Final Cut Pro also analyzes the entire clip, not just the portion you're applying the SmoothCam filter to, which can be time-consuming. For example, on a six-minute HDV clip, only one minute of which was on the timeline, it took about an hour to analyze the clip and apply the filter. Fortunately, you can keep working in the background, but when possible, you should create a separate clip containing only the footage to be stabilized to save processing time. Still, overall, it's a fantastic improvement.
There's tons more enhancements in Final Cut Pro, of course, including the new ProRes codec and a number of new FxPlug filters and transitions, including a killer vignette filter I can't wait to use on my next wedding video. There's also audio normalization on the timeline — although Final Cut Pro doesn't reflect volume changes in the waveform, making it tough to analyze the effect. Fortunately, as before, there's one-click access to Soundtrack Pro, where you can better gauge the results of your normalization efforts. At press time, Apple announced the .0.1 upgrade to Final Cut Pro, which supports AVCHD. Can't wait to test that with the Panasonic AG-HSC1U I've got in for review.
Color is the new color-grading solution included with Studio, which is the result of Apple's acquisition of Silicon Color and its Final Touch Color product. What's important to recognize about Color is that it's not just a shiny bauble to lure the Hollywood crowd. Rather, it has multiple levels of capabilities, several of which are both accessible and useful to bread-and-butter videographers such as myself. The application itself is very engaging, although initially foreign, and absolutely begs to be run in a dual-monitor environment.
Tabs atop the program direct the workflow. You perform primary color correction, or global corrections to the entire clip, in the Primary In tab. Color provides separate color wheels for shadow, midtones, and highlights (like the Color Corrector three-way of recent versions); curves controls for red, green, blue, and luma; plus master numeric controls for saturation, lift, gain, and gamma. The Primary In tab also features a waveform monitor with options for RGB Parade, luma, chroma, red, green, and blue, and YCbCr. There were also 3D scopes available for monitoring RGB, HSL, and other values, but these were definitely over my pay grade.
I corrected several clips with color and/or backlight issues, which I tend to lump together because Final Cut's Color Corrector effect does such a good job correcting both types of problems. I quickly diagnosed and corrected the color issues, primarily using curves. Exposure issues were less intuitive, though after working with the Luma curves slider for a while, it was starting to make a lot of sense.
From a workflow perspective, you can send sequences to Color with a simple Send To command, but you have to render your changes in Color before using them in Final Cut. I couldn't find a pattern in Color's rendering decisions; DV rendered back to DV and HDV to ProRes, which makes the most sense for all such intermediate files. Either way, Color renders the new file to the same resolution and interlaced status as the source file, rather than to the parameters of the sequence preset, which minimizes scaling and de-interlacing issues.
I also experimented with some of the “looks” effects in the Global FX tab, which include film, black and white, and others. You can chain them into completely unique combinations, and save the results — a great way to apply consistent and unique look to a production. There's lots more in the product that I didn't test, including secondary color correction that enables custom refinements to sections of the frame, geometry adjustments such as 2D pan and scan, and the really high-end features such as masking and motion tracking. Overall, Color offers a lot more for the average Joe or Josephine than I originally thought; definitely a great addition to the package. Look for more on Color in an upcoming issue.
Compressor has always been amorphous to me — hard to get my arms around. With version 3.0, Apple added a more structured interface that makes it feel more application-like, and more usable. As with Final Cut Pro, there are canned layouts, which let you quickly display all five main windows in a utilitarian display. Or, of course, you can create and save your own layout.
You access Compressor the same way (File > Export to Compressor), which displays your source file in the batch window. Apple includes four groups of Compressor settings: for Apple devices, DVD, formats (which include MPEG-1, MPEG-2, and MPEG-4), and workflows, which range from animations to HD output. There's a separate folder for your own presets, which you create the same way you did in the previous version. You can also create custom destinations that you can drag and drop into the batch window, making your compressed files much easier to find. Once you get adjusted to the workflow, and create your own custom settings and destinations, you can encode files in as little as four clicks.
Like the previous version, you can load as many files into the batch as desired and continue working in both Final Cut Pro and Compressor. Once you submit the batch and start rendering, however, Final Cut Pro focuses solely on the rendering tasks.
Of course, the proof for any compression-related program is in the performance, both in terms of speed and encoding quality. Here, Compressor does well — very well, if you know how to avoid its potholes. To test Compressor, I encoded a one-minute test file to a series of parameters, then did the same with Telestream's highly regarded Episode Pro batch encoder. In general, I used templates provided by Apple and matched these parameters in Episode Pro. See Table 1 for the results.
While the HDV- and DVD-related encodes showed equivalent quality, Apple's H.264 codec produced noticeably higher quality than did Episode Pro, particularly with the iPod encode. Performance-wise, note that with the iPod preset, Compressor used multi-pass encoding for the Apple H.264 codec, which can take up to five iterations, while Episode used its own codec with only two passes. (This more than accounts for Final Cut Pro's longer encoding time for H.264.)
Although Compressor has a reputation for glacial encodes, it actually performs quite well across the board. What's the secret? Well, stay away from Compressor's highest-quality de-interlace setting, which triggers the incredibly time consuming Optical Flow analysis. For example, Apple's own iPod preset used a lower-quality de-interlacing setting, and when I bumped de-interlacing quality to the highest level, encoding time ballooned to nearly 78 minutes. In essence, Compressor is a very fast encoder, but a very slow de-interlacer at the highest-quality settings.
Feel queasy about sacrificing quality for encoding time? Me too, but de-interlacing quality is hardly ever an issue when scaling down to 320×240, so you don't need the highest-quality setting for iPod encodes. Even at full resolution, unless your project has lots of sharp edges, you'd probably never notice the quality difference between Optical Flow and the next highest-quality setting (Motion Adaptive), which encodes much, much faster. At the very least, encode using Motion Adaptive de-interlacing for all draft encodes, then switch to Optical Flow for your finals.
As before, Compressor doesn't produce Windows Media, Flash, or RealVideo files, so you'll need a third-party solution, such as Episode or Sorenson Squeeze, to access these formats (which would add several hundred dollars to the cost of the suite).
Overall, Apple has done a wonderful job addressing some critical deficiencies in Final Cut Pro, while enhancing the program's features and compression application.
Company: Apple www.apple.com
Product: Final Cut Pro Studio 2
Assets: You can add clips of nearly any resolution, format, frame rate, or standard (NTSC or PAL) with realtime preview.
Caveats: Can't apply SmoothCam filter to non-QuickTime clips, need a third-party solution to produce Windows Media, Flash, or RealVideo files.
Demographic: Everyday video editors to high-end Hollywood filmmakers.
PRICE: $1,299 (FULL); $499 (UPGRADE FROM FINAL CUT STUDIO); $699 (UPGRADE FROM FINAL CUT PRO OR PRODUCTION SUITE)