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First Look Review: Apple Final Cut Pro 7

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Blu-ray Authoring

Figure 1. Final Cut Pro”s new Share function. Click here to see the image in detail.

By now you know that Apple has launched an update to Final Cut Studio. I got an early look last week. The new version will cost $999, a reduction in price of $300. If you own any previous version of Final Cut Pro—even version 1, insisted the product manager in our meeting—you can upgrade to the new Final Cut Studio for $299. From my tests, editors will find the upgrade price worth it. Note, however, that the new version, which is available now, will only run on Intel-based Macs and not older PowerPC-based systems.

Apple upgraded every suite component except for DVD Studio Pro, but in this article, I”m going to focus on Final Cut Pro and Compressor. There”s plenty of cool new stuff in Motion, Soundtrack Pro, and Color, but time and space have prevented me from delving into these programs for this story. Ditto for Final Cut Server, which is sold separately, but now costs $999 for unlimited users.

 
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One disclosure: As part of the review process, I attended an Apple briefing where the product manager walked me through the new product features, and I received the software the next day. Unfortunately, scheduling issues prevented me from spending as much time testing as I normally would before writing a full review, so this article is more like an advanced preview. I poked here and there, but I can”t say that I fully tested all the new features; plenty of time for that over the next few weeks.

Let”s start with Final Cut Pro.

Figure 2. It looks like Final Cut Pro is locked up, but it”s not. Close the window and keep on editing. Click here to see the image in detail.

New Share command

From my perspective, the most significant new feature in the Final Cut Pro 7 is a new Share command that lets you export a sequence directly from the timeline to a range of output options, including any Compressor preset, while the software is rendering in the background. You access the function by clicking File > Share, which opens the new Share menu (Figure 1). From there, you can add an unlimited number of export options—including, as mentioned, Compressor settings. As with Compressor, you can send the encoding task to a single computer or multicomputer cluster (see bottom right of the screenshot), choose a destination folder for your output, and even send the job to Compressor to start the project there (bottom left).

Once you click Export, a new Share window opens, which makes you think that Final Cut Pro is locked up, as with previous versions when exporting to Compressor (Figure 2). However, you can close the Share window and just keep on working in Final Cut Pro. You can”t, however, export another project via the Share export while one is rendering, so if you”re producing a number of short projects, you might prefer the old QuickTime-reference-movie-to-Compressor workflow.

Figure 3. You still monitor your encodings in progress the old-fashioned way, in Batch Monitor. Click here to see the image in detail.

As an aside, note that the old Export to Compressor menu command is no longer there. Instead, Apple added a Send To > Compressor menu command that accomplishes the same thing, except that you can continue working in Final Cut Pro moments after you make the transfer. While Compressor is processing the files, you can check the status in the Batch Monitor, as you could if the files were produced via the traditional route. The encoding results appear in Compressor”s History window.

There”s one caveat that may be significant to fans of Qmaster who are working on multiple-core systems. Specifically, while you can share encoding jobs among multiple computers running Final Cut Pro, you can”t send them to a cluster that comprises multiple cores on the same computer. I tried this in error the first few times I tried producing via the Share menu, with consistent encoding failures.

Figure 4. New templates for sharing in Final Cut Pro or outputting from Compressor. Click here to see the image in detail.

When I asked Apple about this, reps explained that Qmaster works by opening up multiple instances of the encoding program and assigning cores to each instance. However, Final Cut Pro, which actually performs the encoding when you choose the Share command, doesn”t support multiple instances on the same computer, while obviously Compressor does. Again, if you have a cluster of computers with Final Cut Pro installed, you can send the Share job to that cluster.

However, if you have Qmaster enabled for multiple cores on a single computer, the only workflow that implements the feature is as follows: 1. Create a QuickTime reference movie as before. 2. Load that manually into Compressor. Interestingly, if you send the job to Compressor via the button on the lower left in Figure 1 for encoding on a single computer cluster, Qmaster won”t work—you”ll experience the same encoding errors as if you were to encode in Final Cut Pro directly.

How significant is this? It depends totally upon project length and the selected encoding settings, and to a degree, the individual demands of your practice. For example, if your primary concern is freeing up Final Cut Pro for continued editing and you”re not concerned about the fastest possible rendering of your current project, you”ll love the new Share workflow. On the other hand, if your primary concern is the fastest possible production of the project that you”re working on and Qmaster has proven to accelerate this in the past, you may be better off using the traditional QuickTime-reference-movie-to-Compressor workflow.

Figure 5. Final Cut Pro/Compressor can now output directly to YouTube in 720p. Click here to see the image in detail.

New outputs

As you no doubt noted in Figure 1, the new Final Cut Studio supports a range of new outputs, including direct export to YouTube, MobileMe, and Blu-ray. When you open the new Compressor for the first time, you”ll see the seven new templates as shown in Figure 4, which you can also access from the Settings window.

As in many consumer editing programs but few, if any, professional NLEs, the YouTube preset lets you input your name and password and upload files directly to YouTube (Figure 5)—no muss, no fuss. The template included in Compressor produces at parameters up to 720p, outputting an H.264 file that YouTube will re-encode to its final parameters. To my knowledge, Apple is the only vendor, consumer or professional, that supports 720p output to YouTube, which, in case you”ve never used it, is absolutely stunning.

Beyond YouTube, you”ll also notice the Apple TV and MobileMe outputs. Whether for personal or professional use, it”s nice to have these three outputs easily accessible from the timeline.

Figure 6. Blu-ray menu creation (and preview) in Final Cut Pro. Click here to see the image in detail.

Blu-ray support

YouTube, MobileMe, and Apple TV are nice, but the feature that many HD producers have been clamoring for is Blu-ray support, which Apple also added to the suite. Here, Apple focused on the fast and easy production of simple projects such as the encoding of dailies and other videos for client approval, or simple tradeshow or business demos. Full-featured authoring was not the focus. Operationally, you insert chapter markers on the timeline as before, and then choose Blu-ray from the Share menu.

Apple includes five HD menus. You can build your own in Motion, or customize in the Share menu by inserting a custom background image, logo, or title graphic. Final Cut Pro creates all required chapter menus and all links between all menus and chapter points. Navigation is all preset—menu to menu, and then to chapter points—so there”s no menu branching. You can use markers for closed captions, but there”s no provision for multiple audio tracks, pop-up Blu-ray menus, or the like, and no way to preview your title before burning to disc.

In addition to Blu-ray titles, you can also produce an AVCHD disc using the Share menu, which burns HD output with menus onto a DVD-R/+R disc using a standard DVD-R/+R (e.g. legacy drive). This is a nice option when you have limited footage (40 minutes maximum), though compatibility may be an issue. AVCHD discs don”t play on all Blu-ray players. Note that Apple”s own DVD player doesn”t play either AVCHD or Blu-ray Discs, which is unfortunate for producers who don”t have a compatible set-top player close at hand.

Figure 7. The Apple ProRes family: ProRes 4444, ProRes 422 (LT) and ProRes 422 (proxy) are the new members. Click here to see the image in detail.

New ProRes formats

I”ve always liked Final Cut Pro for AVCHD production because working with material converted to ProRes is so much more efficient than editing AVCHD natively. Inside, however, I always cringe at the 147Mbps data rate that balloons the AVCHD file by a factor of about five.

Apple addressed this concern with three new flavors of ProRes. At the high end is ProRes 4444, with the last 4 representing alpha channel. Aimed at high-end post and visual-effects houses, the bit rate at 1080i is a maximum of 330Mbps (without an alpha channel), compared to about 220Mbps for its older sibling ProRes 422 (HQ). At the low end are two new levels, ProRes 422 (LT) at 102Mbps and ProRes 422 (proxy) at 45Mbps, which should prove useful to AVCHD and HDV producers such as myself.

Figure 8. A comparison of the three lowest-quality flavors of ProRes. Click here to see the image in detail.

As an aside, I asked the Apple product manager what we can know about the mathematical basis for ProRes—is it wavelets, fractals, JPEG, or other technology? He responded that Apple has never disclosed the underlying math because whatever the technology, it would predispose potential users one way or the other. Now you know why you don”t know.

At the demo, the rep showed me side-by-side comparisons of the ProRes versions all the way down to proxy, and they all looked very similar. Back in the lab, I converted my standard HD test clip to the three lowest-quality ProRes flavors and compared the results, which you can see in Figure 8, a screenshot of the three clips magnified 2X. On the right, the ProRes 422 (proxy) clip showed minor distortion and some blockiness in the two ballerinas” faces, while the ProRes 422 (LT) clip was very, very close to the ProRes 422 clip.

Overall, the ProRes 422 (proxy) format is ideal for its namesake task. ProRes 422 (LT) seems like a useful alternative to ProRes 422, offering nearly equivalent quality at a data-rate savings of about 30 percent.

Figure 9. Final Cut Pro”s new Change Speed control. Click here to see the image in detail.

Speed control

Another welcome addition is a new Change Speed feature for fast- and slow-motion effects. You apply the effect by CTRL-clicking and choosing Speed, which opens the control shown in Figure 9. As you can see, you have a number of useful customization options. Choose how the speed change will be transitioned in and out and how long that transition will take. Select whether the speed change will ripple through the subsequent clips on the timeline or simply be implemented within the clip”s current duration, a nice option that saves having to manually adjust subsequent clips after applying the effect. You can add multiple keyframes to a clip on the timeline for easy dynamic speed changes throughout.

Other features

Here are some additional noteworthy features that are new for Final Cut Pro 7:

iChat support
If you have an iChat account, Final Cut Pro will now export video viewed in the source or preview monitors to a remote iChat user, complete with timecode. This is a great approval or collaboration feature that can really accelerate group decision-making.

Global transitions
You can now select a number of clips and add a transition to all of them, a nice convenience.

Improved markers
Apple beefed up the markers function, including the ability to color-code markers and to add them in realtime as the video plays.

Native AVC-Intra support
There aren”t a lot of cameras that support AVC-Intra at this point, but Final Cut Pro is ready for the format. The Panasonic AJ-HPX300 ($10,700 MSRP) is one early adopter.

Other new features include a new timecode window, automatic transfer from file-based media such as P2 cards, improved closed-captioning support, and new alpha transitions. There’s also multitouch gesture support, which makes the multitouch trackpad on a MacBook Pro function like the iPod Touch or iPhone, so you can zoom into and out of the timeline by pinching or expanding your fingers on the touchpad.

Figure 10. The Job Actions now available in Compressor. Click here to see the image in detail.

Compressor

I spend a lot of time in Compressor, and there”s a lot to like in the new release. First is support for Job Actions, which can automate simple tasks such as uploading files to YouTube or MobileMe (Figure 10). After applying a setting to a file, you can apply a Job Action, which Compressor executes when the encoding is completed.

Figure 11. Double click the Droplet (far right), and you can access all the templates that you can also access in either Final Cut Pro or Compressor. Click here to see the image in detail.

Enhanced Droplets

You saw Compressor”s new Templates above, which are a nice addition whether you access them in Final Cut Pro or Compressor. In the new release, you can also access the same options via Droplets, which are essentially Compressor presets that sit on your desktop and activate when you drag a file onto them. In the new version, you can double click on a Droplet and open the Droplet window, where you can access any templates or any setting created in Compressor. This makes it simple to change outputs on the fly, and nontechnical users can easily select the appropriate preconfigured target setting.

As you would expect, via Compressor you can access the same Blu-ray functionality I described above, and there”s a new setting for Blu-ray-compatible H.264 files. The final Compressor feature that I”ll mention is its new ability to autodetect the settings from an existing file and create a preset based on those settings. This is useful in a number of scenarios. For example, suppose you received a file from a client with the request that you duplicate its settings. Simply drag the encoded file into the Settings window, and Compressor analyzes the file and creates a preset that matches its settings.

To test this function, I created a new setting, customizing options such as keyframe interval, bit-rate control, and audio characteristics. Then I encoded a 4-minute file and dragged the file into the Settings bin, thereby creating a new setting. I compared the new setting with the original setting. The results were very good, but not perfect.

For example, Compressor accurately derived the codec (H.264), profile (baseline), resolution, frame rate, audio and video data rates, and streaming settings. However, when generating the new setting, Compressor used a keyframe setting of 15 rather than the 300 that I had dialed in, and it used Faster Encode (single-pass) rather than Best Quality (multipass). This brings to mind the old Ronald Reagan phrase, “Trust, but verify.” Use the new autodetect functions to derive most of the key encoding parameter quickly and easily, but to make sure that they”re appropriate, review the parameters before using them.

How does this all add up? The new features in Final Cut Pro and Compressor alone more than justify the inexpensive upgrade price for the new Final Cut Studio. When you consider the new features in the other modules, the updated suite is a must-have.

bottomline

Company: Apple
www.apple.com
Product: Final Cut Pro 7
Assets: Share command lets you export a sequence directly from the timeline to a range of output options; Blu-ray support; new ProRes formats; enhanced speed control feature.
Caveats: With Qmaster enabled, you can share encoding jobs among multiple computers running Final Cut Pro, but you can”t send them to a cluster that comprises multiple cores on the same computer.
Price: $999 (Final Cut Studio); $299 (upgrade)

To create a Blu-ray Disc from Final Cut Pro 7, click File > Share, and choose Blu-ray output. See this image larger.

Blu-ray Authoring

One of the coolest new features in Final Cut Pro 7 is Blu-ray authoring. Though time pressures prevented me from testing this function for the main review, I was able to squeeze in a quick look for this sidebar. Here”s the workflow.

Start by adding chapter markers to your project as before. Once you”re done, click File > Share to open the Share menu, and choose Blu-ray as your target.

Click the Create Blu-ray Disc checkbox on the left to open the options screen shown on the right. Then choose your output device. If you have a Blu-ray drive in the computer, select it to burn a Blu-ray Disc. If you choose your legacy DVD-R/+R drive, you”ll burn an AVCHD disc, which can store about 40 minutes of HD video on a red-laser DVD-R/+R disc. This isn”t universally compatible with all Blu-ray players, however. Or you can choose the Hard Drive (Blu-ray) option and burn the project into an IMG file that you can burn to Blu-ray Disc later, or on another computer.

Next, choose one of the five templates that Apple provides, or roll your own in Motion, and type the name of your project in the title field. Beyond that, you can customize the menu by inserting your own background image, logo, or title graphic, and have the DVD player open the menu or the video when the disc is inserted. Operationally, Final Cut Pro creates all the required chapter menus and all links between menus and chapter points with preset navigation. There is no preview window, but if you”ve spelled your marker names and title correctly, there”s very little that can go wrong.

You can add multiple projects to the Share menu. I actually burned both a Blu-ray Disc and a DVD at the same time. When you”ve finished adding projects, click Export, and Final Cut Pro goes to work. On my 2.93GHz eight-core Mac Pro, it took 37 minutes to convert 12 minutes of 1080p AVCHD footage (captured as ProRes HQ) and burn it to two shiny new discs—one Blu-ray and one a standard DVD. The Blu-ray played on my ancient Samsung BDP-1000, which was among the first Blu-ray player models ever shipped. This bodes well for compatibility with newer players. The DVD played fine on all tested players.

The video quality on both discs is very, very good. Overall, while short on features, Final Cut Pro”s Blu-ray and DVD authoring capabilities are very long on convenience, ease of use, and output quality. —J.O.

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