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Final Cut Pro X Redux: What Editors Can Accomplish with Apple’s Updated Software

Apple launched into February with an eagerly awaited free update to Final Cut Pro X. Apple uses the Mac OS X numbering scheme, so the official update is 10.0.3, which would be equivalent to a version 1.3 release in other products. Don’t let the numbers fool you, though, as this is a huge release that adds major features, as well as some enhancements. The FCP X update was accompanied by corresponding free updates to Compressor 4 and Motion 5.

Multicam Editing
The addition of multicam editing and broadcast monitoring fulfills an earlier promise to restore a number of features in FCP needed by professional users. The FCP X multicam editor is fully featured and an improvement over FCP 7. You can cut with up to 64 camera angles of mixed formats and frame rates. Simply select the desired sources in the event and combine them into a multicam clip. When you do this, a dialog box opens to select a synchronization method. The options include timecode and markers, but also a sophisticated method to sync by audio waveforms, like that used by Singular Software’s PluralEyes. You can open this multicam clip in its own timeline and make adjustments to the order of cameras, add effects and add more cameras.

Simply edit the multicam clip to your project (edited sequence) and pick the angle to use for audio and video. To cut between camera angles, Apple has added the Angle Viewer, which displays a matrix of camera angles ganged in sync with the project timeline and viewer. The Angle Viewer can display up to 16 angles per bank. If you have more than 16 cameras, then switch the Angle Viewer between banks as needed. Angles are mapped by default to the number row on the keyboard, so cutting cameras is as easy as playing and switching “live” between angles by hitting the appropriate number key.

I tested this with two cameras and a four-channel audio file with matching timecode. The audio file consisted of four ISO mics. Cutting camera images was easy and fun, but not the audio. FCP X has a very convoluted method of working with multichannel audio from a single source thanks to the trackless timeline. The usual menu options to “detach the audio” or “break apart items” appear to be disabled for multicam editing; therefore, it’s impossible to edit or mix the four individual mics within the project timeline. (It could be done by separately editing the audio to the timeline again or doing that work in the original multicam source clip.) Multicam is nicely implemented for picture, but until the audio side is fixed, it’s unusable for some projects, such as reality TV shows.

Broadcast Monitoring
FCP X 10.0.3 adds the ability to properly monitor audio/video signals through a range of PCIe cards and Thunderbolt units from vendors like AJA, Blackmagic Design and Matrox. In use, it’s obvious why Apple considers this feature as still in beta development. I tested it with a Blackmagic DeckLink HD Extreme 3D card and new beta drivers from Blackmagic Design. The video quality was accurate, but the card tended to momentarily drop to black as I moved between sources and timeline playback within FCP X. In fact, it was hard to keep the signal up on the external monitor when I wasn’t playing the timeline. When I did get it to stay, however, it tracked the images during skimming without issue.

There are no controls to change viewing format as in FCP 7. You have to set the card’s default format using the System Preferences pane to match the project you are working on. This requires that you quit FCP X and relaunch every time you make a change in settings. There is no pull-down insertion, so if you are working on a 23.98 fps project, you will need a broadcast monitor that supports 24 fps viewing. I found that the playback intermittently dropped frames, which was most obvious on pans and tilts. Colleagues testing AJA KONA cards reported similar issues.

Other Marquee Features
Motion 5 introduced a very powerful green/bluescreen keyer with both “one-step” and advanced controls. The simple version of that keyer was found in FCP X, but with this update, the full range of advanced controls has been exposed inside the FCP X interface, and new features like light wrap have been added. This improvement gives FCP X one of the nicest keyers in any NLE—certainly on par with Avid’s SpectraMatte or Adobe’s Ultra.

The best new feature for me is Relink, which enables viable offline-to-online workflows within FCP X. Simply highlight the clips in a project and relink the media in these clips. FCP X will also import the new clips into an event. For example, in an ALEXA or RED project, you may opt to cut with low-resolution dailies generated by the lab or the DIT on set. When the cut is locked, create a new event, duplicate the project and associate it with that new event. Now relink to the original high-resolution camera files (or ProRes conversions in the case of RED) and your project will show up with the corresponding clips ready for color grading and finishing.

A number of other changes have been made throughout, including a change to the way Photoshop files are imported. In the first version, files were imported and flattened. Now, layered Photoshop files are imported as a compound clip with layers intact, allowing you to adjust the elements within the FCP X timeline. Any Photoshop layer effects, like drop shadows or embossing, have to be merged first in Photoshop to show up correctly in FCP X.

Expanding the Ecosystem
The number of vendors and the depth of their offerings for Final Cut Pro X have been quickly rebuilding, adding effects and filters, but also filling in workflow gaps. The biggest news with this update is the release by Intelligent Assistance of the 7toX application (available at the Mac App Store for $9.99). You can finally migrate Final Cut Pro 7 projects and/or sequences into Final Cut Pro X. Check the site for the list of what works and doesn’t, but in its first iteration, a rich amount of data is brought over from FCP 7 to FCP X. The big caveat is that you must have media connected to the FCP 7 project when you export the XML in order for the translation and linking to work properly. Paired with the companion app, Xto7 for Final Cut Pro, 7toX will let you “move off of the island.”

FCP X 10.0.3 changed the XML format slightly, so if you’ve been using Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve for grading round-trips, make sure you update Resolve as well. Other new workflow applications that are compatible with FCP X include Boris Soundbite from Boris FX and Singular Software’s PluralEyes. Soundbite’s speech analysis enables phonetic searches for words or phrases in footage, and the results can be imported into FCP X. Although FCP X offers audio synchronization and multicam, PluralEyes may be used as an alternate method to synchronize multiple cameras and/or sync camera audio tracks in double-system productions.

Filters Galore
Most of the FxPlug plug-in vendors have been getting up to speed with new tools for FCP X. These now include popular packages from Noise Industries (FxFactory), CHV, CrumplePop and CoreMelt. Recent additions to the party have included Pomfort, Digieffects, Digital Heaven, Nattress, Red Giant and GenArts.

Digieffects’ Damage and Delirium filters have been popular with effects artists and provide the FCP X editor with a nice complement of distress/distortion effects and particles, including electrical arcs and fairy dust. Digital Heaven has focused solely on Final Cut instead of a wider range of hosts. Their small and affordable set of transitions and filters is often the right tool for the job. Now for FCP X, Digital Heaven offers a set of transitions (flares, bumps, rolls, light flashes, shutter, stretch-pans), the Reincarnation (pixel fixing) and Box (transform and crop controls) filters, plus an overlay grid.

Just before the release of FCP X, Noise Industries launched FxFactory 3, which included a number of new products from partners Nattress, Yanobox, Luca Visual FX and Idustrial Revolution. Graeme Nattress was an early FCP effects developer, but most now know him as the man behind RED’s codec and color science. FxFactory 3 offers updated versions of his levels and curves filters to augment FCP X’s color grading capabilities. Along the same lines, Yanobox added Moods, a color wheel-based grading tool for those who don’t like the FCP X Color Board. Both Nattress and Yanobox have been able to work around the limitation of the slider-based FCP X filter panel by using on-screen controls that lay over the image in the viewer.

Idustrial Revolution and Luca have brought a number of new effects to FCP X and Motion 5 with XEffects Tech Transitions and the Grunge collection, respectively. XEffects includes a variety of transitions using grids, panels, zooms and wipes to divide up outgoing and incoming shots at the transition. This results in effects with a realistic, action-adventure feel. Luca’s Grunge Collection includes Grunge Effects, Film Leaders, Sprocket Slip and Light Leaks. These show up inside FCP X as filters, generators and transitions, depending on the type of effect. There are a lot of different light leak and grunge packages on the market, but this collection provides a great toolkit to editors in a single package.

Pomfort has been a software developer focused on ARRI ALEXA products. For FCP X and Motion 5, the company offers a set of LUT (lookup table) filters to convert “flat” camera profiles into Rec. 709 video images. These include filters for ALEXA’s Log C, Technicolor’s CineStyle and Sony’s S-Log. In addition to preset gamma correction, each filter includes sliders to subjectively adjust the color parameters of the image.

Rounding out the FCP X Party
The biggest plug-in news is the compatibility with Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Looks 2 and GenArts’ Sapphire Edge. Changes in this update (and corresponding updated versions of Looks 2 and Edge) make it possible to use them with FCP X. If you are familiar with Magic Bullet Looks 2 and Sapphire Edge from other host applications, the functionality is the same in FCP X. Whereas Magic Bullet Looks 2 allows you to do all the effect modification within the Looks 2 interface, Sapphire Edge takes a slightly different approach. Edge effects are based on four filters (Film Damage, Film Style, Lens Flare and TV Damage) and a variety of transitions (blurs, bubbles, glows, etc.). Apply an effect to a clip and adjust the sliders or launch the preview application and pick from one of the presets. You can also subscribe to Sapphire Edge’s FX Central service for monthly updates to the preset collection (the first year’s fee is included with Edge purchase).

One thing to bear in mind is that filters inside FCP X are Motion 5 templates. Individual users can easily create custom filters in Motion 5 and then “publish” them to FCP X, where they show up as effects, transitions or generators. A number of enterprising editors have developed their own and offer them for free online; prolific developers include Simon Ubsdell, Alex Gollner and Brendan Gibbons. In fact, Ubsdell has come up with several very nice grading filters complete with on-screen color wheels.

New filters offer new visual styles and techniques, but heavy-duty filters impact performance. The built-in FCP X filters seem very efficient, and some of the lighter-weight plug-ins, like those from Digital Heaven or Nattress, play smoothly without rendering. Others, like Magic Bullet Looks 2 or Sapphire Edge, require a bit more horsepower and ultimately have to be rendered for smooth playback. Despite other improvements in this FCP X update, overall rendering performance for the application seems slow to me, even with 64-bit and OpenCL optimization. I hope we’ll see some performance tweaks in the next round of updates.

FCP X 10.0.3 isn’t going to change many minds in the ongoing heated discussions that surround this product. I believe 10.0.3 represents the version that Apple had originally intended to release last year, but some features simply weren’t stable or ready by the ship deadline. Multicam may sway a few who have been on the fence, but those who were hoping that updates would make FCP X more like the “legacy” versions of Final Cut aren’t going to be happy. It’s pretty clear that FCP X, with its new approach to editing, is Apple’s intended direction. For some, this is a freeing experience. Those users make up the segment that will test the waters professionally with FCP X and continue to be excited about how it evolves.