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Final Cut: 2006
Final Cut: 2006
When I first
wrote this article back in August 2002 a debate was raging;
was Final Cut Pro viable as a professional post-production tool?
At that point I had been working on Final Cut for 9 months and
had owned my own SDI- FCP-based edit suite for 3 months. I decided
to share my insights and write an article. The response to that
article has been overwhelmingly positive. 4 years later I'm still
collecting emails from producers and editors who find the article
instructive. Of course, after every new release of Final Cut
they generally ask the same question, "That was then, how
This article is my answer, now in
its 3rd edition, updated for Final Cut Pro version 5.
Special Thanks to the following people
for their invaluable contributions to this article: Mark Raudonis,
George Creedle, Oliver Peters, Terence Curren, Frank Capria,
and Martin Baker. Any inaccuracies in this piece are my fault
This article is for producers and editors.
It answers the question, what situations would force an editor
or producer to choose to work on an Avid instead of Final Cut
Originally written in 2002, it has been
entirely rewritten to reflect where we stand today, the start
of 2006. You can find the 2004 and 2002 versions of this article
What is the difference between Apple's Final Cut Pro and Avid's
Not when it comes to creating
first-class, professional results in a timely manner. They both
get the job done on-budget and on-time.
But when it comes to how we approach
our projects or how we interact with the software itself, there
are some meaningful differences. I generally classify
these differences into two types:
- Big Picture
differences are those which will actually impact our choice of
software; when is it smarter to do a job in Avid rather than
Final Cut Pro? These Big Picture differences are few,
but should definitely be heeded. For Final Cut users, they might
- Smaller Stuff
differences are differences that may impact workflow
but shouldn't have much impact on our ability to produce a professional
product in a time- or cost-effective manner. These Smaller
Stuff differences, if discovered mid-project, may cause headaches
- but rarely will they bring a project to a grinding halt. But
being prepared up-front should help you avoid overages.
As for my credentials... well, I've edited
Avid (starting in 1992) and Final Cut (starting in 2001), and
many others. While I've decided to build my edit suite around
Final Cut Pro, I consider it my job to understand its relative
weaknesses. Nor am I unduly critical of Avid, having made a career
of it in the past. In fact, if you were to ask me to name the
best non-linear editor on the market, without hesitation I'd
Logic's Smoke - if it were about $120,000 cheaper. But it's
not. So instead (and because this topic is more interesting to
me) I'll evaluate the merits of Final Cut Pro in relation to
Avid. What follows is my contribution to this ongoing discussion.
The Big Picture
- Networked Editorial Pipeline: Solved! Do you need to share footage among dozens and
dozens of editors? Control who has access to footage while throttling
the bandwidth to certain users to ensure the finishing room won't
drop frames while producers down the hall are watching a rough
cut? Do you need 24/7 uptime reliability, confident that a hard
drive failure doesn't impact any of your end-users? What if you
also need to dynamically expand or remove the amount of storage
allocated to any given shared storage space? Do you also need
to lock down specific media volumes so that your Pepsi clients
never ever see the footage from that new Coke commercial? In
the 2004 edition of this article the only system capable of this
kind of hard-core capability was Avid, via their Unity
product line. In years past Unity was proof of Avid's industrial
grade quality and was at the top of everyone's list of what separated
Avid from Final Cut. And so this issue stays at the top of the
list this year, but with a twist...
In 2006 there's another player on the
scene. It's shipping and it's called Xsan.
It's made by Apple and it's
being used with Final Cut Pro. In researching this article
I was blind-sided by its capabilities. It blew through my prejudice
that Unity was the only solution for the type of large scaled
networked editorial installations I just described. And like
its Unity competitor the architecture is redundant, scalable,
and is best implemented if you bring a "high-end" attitude
to building one of these systems. Cut corners, and it'll bite
you (no, it's not a good idea to use your Mac mini as a metadata
controller). But if you surround it with a capable IT staff and
follow Apple's guidelines you can do what Unity does, and do
it with Final Cut Pro. Built upon Xserve
Raids and Xserve G5s,
here's a small sampling of Xsans feature set:
- Mix and match Raid
0 and Raid 5 stripes. XSan calls it Affinities. Use Raid
5 where data protection is paramount and Raid 0 where throughput
is a priority (like High-Def finishing).
- Security and permissions can be as tight
or as loose as you want. As we expect when working at this level
of shared resources, read/write access can be restricted based
on a mixture of permissions settings, completely locking different
projects out from each other and allowing specific users or class
of users (logger, editors, producers) to read-only some files
while writing to others. These Unix-style premissions can also
be applied at the file, folder, user, or volume level.
If you're considering a large networked
editorial pipeline, Avid is no longer the only kid on the block.
XSan is a serious
solution for a complex problem. And since
it's up to 40% less expensive for a comparable Unity install
you can spend that savings to triple your storage capacity (eliminating
the need to constantly wipe media off your drives to make room
for new media) and double the number of Final Cut seats (so everyone
from the Script Department to Production Assistants to Post Audio
to the Executive Producer can have Final Cut on their iMac -
ready to approve an edit moments after it's ready). This is a
big change since the 2004 version of this article and eliminates
one major reason for choosing Avid over Final Cut. On this item
Apple has achieved parity and can now play with the big boys.
Solved! A long-time deficiency in Final Cut Pro
was multicamera timelines. Like Unity, the lack of multicam
was considered another missing link that defined Final Cut as
a "poor-man's Avid". Avid has a great multicamera editing
workflow. It's fast. It's efficient. It's easy to use. But Final
Cut Pro has introduced its own multicam workflow. I can't say
if it's on par with Avid's (I haven't worked with it yet). But
it's there, it's working, and I've spoken with a few experienced
editors who really like it. For a quick overview check out this
article and this
multimedia overview on Apple's website.
- Media Management: In previous editions of this article this item
used to be in the Smaller Stuff section. No longer. The
Media Manager hasn't had a serious update in 4 years. It still
does a terrible job handling time remaps and Final Cut gets flakey
on clips with no reel numbers (like After Effects renders). Final
Cut's Media Manager requires much more hand holding than it should,
especially for a Version 5 product. To be fair, the various public
forums and mailing lists have noticeably fewer editors ranting
about Media Management. Improvements have been made. But when
it comes to media management there's no such thing as a small
bug. It's time for Apple's Final Cut team to abandon its current
practice of incrementally fixing the Media Manager, leaving its
users in doubt as to its status and never knowing when it's going
to bite us. Editors need confidence in their tools. The Final
Cut team needs to stop giving editors a strong valid reason to
prefer Avid over Final Cut.
- Color Correction Toolset: In years past I've been reluctant to consider
the Final Cut color corrector for inclusion in this article.
Why? The Final
Cut color correction tools are good. They get the job done,
and done well, in 95% of the situations. But Avid has migrated
some of the Symphony
color corrector down its product line while the Final Cut
color corrector hasn't been touched. Today, the Avid color correction
workflow remains the better of the two; enough to give many talented
editors a continued reason to avoid Final Cut.
On Avid Symphony's color corrector you
can apply corrections across an entire show based on "Master
Clip," "Source Clip Name" or "Tape name".
And corrections can be removed just as easily. Useful functionality,
unless you spend most of your time finishing "reality-style"
productions. With their frequent changes in color temperature,
iris, and locations it can be a fool's quest to apply one correction
to a single clip, much less an entire tape (trust me, I know).
For my money, where Avid has the upper-hand is its Photoshop-style
curves editor, available across Avid's product line. Curves give
a finisher tremendous power over the image. Final Cut, lacking
a curves editor, leaves us at the mercy of the "Blacks,
"Mids", "Whites" controls. Changes to the
Whites values can creep all the way down into the Blacks. Mids
spread out to the Blacks and Whites while changes to the Blacks
can infect the brightest Whites. But with a curves editor you
can restrict your corrections to a very defined section of the
image (and restrict it even further to just the Red, Green, or
Blue channel), leaving the rest of the image untouched. For the
serious finisher it's a compelling reason to choose Avid over
Apple needs only look at Color
Finesse to understand what kind of color controls its power
users crave to be integrated into Final Cut. Detracting from
Avid is the fact they cripple the color corrector in the same
way they stratify their product line (more on that in moments).
"Non-Symphony" Avids are deprived of curves control
on channels as well as a host of other powerful Symphony color
correction features. Yet let me be clear, from the perspective
of a Final Cut finisher, Final Cut's color correction deficiencies
slow me down, they don't knock me out of the game - but I'd sure
appreciate a boost.
- Stratified Product Line: Another big difference between the software
platforms are, well, the platforms. With Avid there are a half-dozen
different flavors of Avid. Some Avids have more
features than other Avids. Some even have completely different
interfaces. And moving up the Avid hierarchy means buying a whole
new system. So as a Producer or Editor you have to know exactly
what you want out of your Avid before you book (or buy) the Avid.
All of this makes purchasing or booking an Avid needlessly complex,
adding fuel to Final Cut Pro's fire.
Final Cut, by contrast, is Final Cut.
Whether you're working in DV or HD the interface is the same,
the projects are the same - which means they are 100% interchangeable.
The only difference between any two Final Cut systems is the
hardware that pulls in and spits out the video (allowing you,
for instance, to digitize Digital Betacam or output High Definition).
And unlike Avid, if you want to upgrade your hardware, it's just
a matter of adding a few boards - there's no new software to
learn. On Avid, the worst case scenario requires you to not only
buy an entirely new computer rig, but to also learn an entirely
new program; perfect examples are the stars of the Avid High-Definition
Nitris and DS
On Final Cut. the interface stays the
Most Final Cut systems are custom setups. Producers might have
to hunt around for a system that meets their exact needs. Of
course, the same is essentially true for Avid (Avid's product
line being insanely stratified) - so on this point there is parity.
But from an Editor's point of view, you can walk into any Final
Cut Pro suite in the world and know exactly how to run the software,
no matter the hardware hanging off it.
Sweating the Smaller Stuff
From a Producer's point of view, when
considering integrating Final Cut Pro, there are other, smaller
areas that might trip up a project, depending on your workflow.
And if these Smaller Stuff issues effect you, they can
be worked around - especially if you plan ahead.
As an editor, when evaluating Final Cut,
there aren't too many fundamental differences between the platforms
that hasn't already been covered... but here are some things
to think about:
- Timeline Flexibility: Final Cut is far less regimented than Avid. Final
Cut has no Segment Mode. More precisely, Final Cut is
always in Segment Mode. Clips can be swapped, moved
or dragged as quickly as you can move. Cut and Paste entire clips,
tracks, timelines. Keep open as many timelines and projects as
your RAM can handle and drag and drop clips, sequences, and bins
between them. This kind of flexibility takes some time to get
used to, but it's difficult to go back to Avid's regimented way
- XML Integration: Given Apple's reputation for creating closed
systems, I find it surprising that Apple decided to go ahead
with the XML framework for all its profession apps - but we are
all becoming the beneficiaries of that decision. By this I mean,
great new workflows are being developed for Final Cut that either
aren't being developed for Avid or are being developed more slowly.
If, for instance, you need to do lots of versioning try Digital
or xm|Edit's Traffic. Does
Final Cut's color corrector not make the grade? With XML output
of your timeline you can move into dedicated color correction
interfaces such as Silicon Color's Final
Touch and Synthetic Aperture's Color
Finesse both of which support specialty control
interfaces. Note: As of this writing Color
Finesse 2 is not yet shipping.
In all these apps, XML allows developers
to fill gaps in Final Cut and profitably sell to niches outside
Apple's line-of-sight. How does all this XML stuff work? I don't
know. I leave
it to the geeks and plunk down my change whenever I need
some specific workflow enhancement that Apple hasn't yet implemented.
I'm just not seeing this kind of energy on Avid's side of the
- Studio Bundle Wars: When I first wrote this section I figured, in
comparison to Avid, the biggest improvement in Final Cut Pro
over the past 4 years isn't Final Cut, but all the apps that
come bundled with it. After some reader comments and lots of
rummaging it's pretty clear Avid has done a good job of keeping
up with the Jones'. I'm going to call this race a tie. I was
going to eliminate this section but because I've already written
it, because electrons are cheap, and because it's interesting
to see how competition has pushed both these companies, I'll
keep these comments for the 2006 version of the article...
In the last two years Apple has recognized
that life for many editors goes beyond merely the timeline. Thus
was born Final Cut Studio, an array of useful apps to round out
any edit suite: LiveType
for type and motion graphics; Soundtrack
Pro for audio repairs, mixing, and sweetening; Compressor
2 for creating DVD MPEG-2s and Quicktime .movs; DVD
Studio Pro for DVD authoring. All these apps ship with Final
Cut Pro. In fact, you can't even buy Final Cut as a stand-alone
app. It's Final
Cut Studio or nothing. DVD Studio Pro and Final Cut Pro are
each worth the price of the bundle.
It seems Avid hasn't been asleep at the
wheel. Understanding the productivity boost that the Studio bundle
offers, Avid has answered with several Studio bundles including
XpressPro Studio HD. In typical Avid fashion, there are at
different versions of this bundle (seriously, Avid seems
genetically unable to streamline its product offerings). The
full, most expensive version includes Avid
FX (a filters package), Avid
DVD by Sonic, Avid
ProTools LE, the Avid
Mojo hardware interface and accelerator, and a ProTools firewire-based
surface. Overall an impressive package and not overpriced.
But PC only (sorry Mac users).
Avid's Studio bundle certainly looks
impressive, especially considering the hardware it offers. In
contrast, Apple keeps their product offering simple and straightforward.
All or nothing and at almost 1/6th the price; leaving Mac users
plenty of cash to pick up a good
control surface and hardware
interface and still have cash left over. Personally, I'd
like to see someone do an article comparing how well Avid's Studio
apps work together compared with Final Cut Studio's apps. On
the surface, I'd say both Studio packages are evenly matched
with Apple gaining a slight edge for value and being a bigger
winner if you need (or want) to work on a Mac.
4 years later and Final
Cut Pro has made big strides. This edition is the first time
I had to do a major rewrite from the article I wrote in 2002.
And Apple has solved the majority of issues we had back then.
In fact, given Final Cut's level of maturity I deducted a few
points this time around because the Media Manager, in spite of
recent improvements, has yet to inspire the confidence it must.
All the other Big Stuff issues have either been solved or are
lesser issues elevated due to the maturity of the platform. Therefore,
my original conclusion holds more true today than at any time
over the past 4 years: both Avid and Final Cut are professional-level
apps. More importantly, Final Cut Pro has no real inherent limitations
when compared to Avid. The only reason to choose one platform
over the other is personal preference. So to all those producers
out there wondering if they should avoid or seek out editors
working on Final Cut Pro...
...buy the editor, not the software.
If you follow that advice, most all of the issues discussed above
will be completely invisible to you because good talent will
overcome software and workflow issues.
And to all those editors out there who
get so heated up in these Avid vs FCP discussions...
...that boat left the harbor many years
ago. The time has passed when our success as editors is defined
by our access to a limited supply of very expensive black boxes.
Going forward our success will defined by our dedication... not
to the toolset, but to the craft.
Patrick Inhofer is an editor, compositor,
and nice guy. He has 14 years experience in post-production and
broadcast graphics. He is also the guy in charge of Fini.
You can praise him or flame him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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