Final Cut Studio?

F

In my recent post, I shared a few reactions to Apple’s unveiling- a sneak peek as they deemed it- of the upcoming Final Cut Pro X. (Interestingly, the presenter referred to it as ‘Final Cut Pro 10′ on a number of occasions. If the X really is a ’10,’ one sort of wonders what happened to 8 and 9…) The response to it across the interwebs have, as is true of any Apple product release, been a mixed bag of unhindered enthusiasm to abject nay-saying. Probably the majority of the comments (at least depending on the forum…) I have read would fall under the ‘cautiously optimistic’ category.

This is only natural. As I explained in my last post, video editing is a fast-paced field, with little time available for either learning new software or, as is sometimes worse, getting used to the new implementations of the software you use on a daily basis. FCPX is a complete ground-up re-write of Final Cut Pro, and is at least intended to represent a rethinking of the whole approach to non-linear editing. For many commenters, the issue is not with what Apple talked about, but rather what it didn’t talk about.

One of the things that Apple did not talk about was the future of the other ‘pro apps’ that have been bundled with Final Cut Pro in its last 4 releases. In 2004 Apple released its Production Suite which bundled FCP5, Motion, Compresser 1.2, DVD Studio Pro 3, LiveType and Soundtrack. The next year it was re-branded as Final Cut Studio and saw incremental updates to all the applications. Finally, it was upgraded to Final Cut Studio 2 in 2007 and received its last update in 2009, branded as simply Final Cut Studio. This version saw the bundling of Color and the dropping of LiveType as a stand-alone product.

Since the release of Production Suite back in 2004, all the ‘pro apps’ in the suite/studio have been available only with the bundle. However, with FCPX Apple seems to be looking to get away from the bundle lock-in and move on to a more stand-alone application model. The silence regarding any of the other pro apps at the sneak peek is, for some, rather deafening, and many have speculated that Apple may be looking to pare back its pro apps efforts and focus on Final Cut exclusively. (This doesn’t necessarily include Logic Studio, which has always remained a stand-alone application.)

There may be some merit to this line of thought, at least in regards to some of Apple’s pro apps. My speculation is that some of them are going to get the axe, while others may continue to be developed.

image courtesy Apple, Inc.

Soundtrack Pro

Soundtrack has never really felt like a ‘pro app.’ Sure, it has some useful features for basic audio editing, like noise reduction, enveloping, etc. However, I remember using Cool Edit 2 (which became Adobe Audition which became Adobe Soundtrack) over 6-7 years ago, and it always felt far more powerful and polished than Soundtrack. Soundtrack Pro has always occupied that middle space between the audio controls with Final Cut Pro and the far more robust features of its more attractive cousin Logic. The disconnect is precisely in this middle ground- Apple has billed it as a ‘pro app,’ yet has another application which runs circles around it in regards to what both are supposed to do.

Rather, Soundtrack Pro has always felt like something that should just be built right into Final Cut Pro. It really only makes sense. Someone in a large-scale production environment who focuses exclusively on audio engineering is simply not going to use something like Soundtrack Pro. Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, etc., are going to be the tools of choice. On the flip side, someone who exists in a small-scale production environment- the growing segment of video production where it very well may be 1-2 people doing everything- may very well not need the robust features of something like Pro Tools, etc.

In such a situation, having the audio editing capabilities of something like Soundtrack Pro built right into Final Cut Pro X makes far more sense. The round-tripping that has characterized (I would say plagued) the last few releases of Final Cut Studio really doesn’t create an efficient or intuitive workflow. Granted, there may be underlying architectural reasons that the feature set of Soundtrack Pro could not be built into FCPX. However, given the complete re-write of FCPX, it would not surprise me if Apple essentially bundles the functionality of Soundtrack Pro right into FCPX.

Prediction: Soundtrack Pro no longer exists as an app, but is built into FCPX.

image courtesy Apple, Inc.

Color

Color was first introduced into Final Cut Studio 2. Having never used it before, from the moment I opened it I realized two things: 1. this felt very much like it was a last-minute tacked on addition to the studio, as if Apple had bought it and threw it in for some value-add. 2. this was a different beast from the rest of the studio.

Color is a great program, in that it is extremely powerful. If you aren’t used to using it (like me) it can be a little daunting to get into. The interface is absolutely nothing like the rest of Final Cut Studio, and the node-based workflow can be confusing if you’ve never dealt with it before. However, after playing around with it a little bit I discovered just how powerful it was, absolutely killing the 3-way Color Correction built into FCP7. I found myself spending hours playing with sliders, crafting curves, etc.

Then you send it back to Final Cut and are in for a rude awakening- the subtle and nuanced color corrections that you so painstakingly created are gone. There is a hint of what you did, like a vapor trailing in the air before fading into oblivion. But it’s definitely NOT THE SAME. So it’s back to Color to make corrections so it hopefully won’t look like crap when you bring it back into Final Cut. Which means more renders, more time down the drain.

The lack of color sync across applications essentially rendered Color useless for me. I simply don’t have the time to guess and re-render color corrections because of gamma changes between applications that are supposedly part of the same pro studio. Because of this, I’ve never really been able to use Color to the extent that it is capable. (That and its interface is clearly not intended for a mouse and keyboard, yet we don’t all have the money for a dedicated input device.)

Color is another app that is begging to be included directly in FCPX. The round-tripping of color correction is, frankly, painful, and seems as unnecessary as it is unintuitive. Granted, when Color was included there were probably underlying architectural reasons it could not be built right into FCPX, and those may still exist. I hope, however, that with the complete code rewrite more robust color controls- whether on the scale of Color or something in-between- are built in. At the very least, the ColorSync compatibility will hopefully resolve the gamma issues.

In the sneak-peek of FCPX, there were some hints that the color correction tools are more robust, and that even the way of going about color correction has been re-thought. My hope is that the round-tripping for color-correction will become a thing of the past, like a bad dream we can finally wake up from.

Prediction: Color no longer exists as a stand-alone app, but is built right into FCPX.

image courtesy Apple, Inc.

DVD Studio Pro

DVD Studio Pro was originally a stand-alone app, but was first bundled into the Production Suite back in 2004. At that time it was DVD Studio Pro 3, and has only seen one more update in the first Final Cut Studio to become DVD Studio Pro 4. So yes, it has not been updated in nearly 6 years. Granted, the writing was on the wall, and always has been. As far as dvd creation goes, it is fairly robust. However, since the birth of Apple’s endeavors in the realm of online distribution with iTunes, the focus of Apple’s model has been to bet that online distribution is the future. It is a somewhat safe bet for Apple, as iTunes was the catalyst for dragging the music industry (and eventually the film and television industry) into online distribution. (usually kicking and screaming…) Steve Jobs has made no secret that he thinks blu-ray is a ‘bag of hurt’ and is not going to have the market penetration or longevity that DVDs enjoyed for so long. Many who were hoping for blu-ray authoring in the last iteration of Final Cut Studio had their heads in the clouds- Apple has bet ‘all in’ on online distribution as the primary means of media distribution in the future.

Netflix’s nearly single-handed demolition of brick-and-mortar video rentals, (*cough* Blockbuster *cough*) the explosive growth of e-books, (and the subsequent death of brick-and-mortar bookstores…*cough* Borders *cough*) the success of Hulu and others probably point that Apple’s ‘all in’ is the right move.

DVDs certainly aren’t dead, but neither are they the only means of video distribution. Apple’s reluctance to update it for the last six years along with its insistence against supporting blu-ray as a format seem to indicate that Apple is betting that the majority of its customers are going to be using online distribution more and more exclusively in the future. The difficulty is in the meantime those who still need to distribute media in more ‘traditional’ avenues might be left out in the cold, forced to find 3rd-party solutions. My personal take is that while online distribution is the future, the infrastructure is not there yet. Nevertheless, Apple’s current business model is dependent on a lot of people consuming media on their hardware- iPods, iPhones and iPads. (and maybe someday AppleTV) As such, it seems to be in their best interest to support that means of media distribution.

Prediction: DVD Studio Pro is gone as an application.

image courtesy Apple, Inc.

Compressor

I have to admit that I never really used Compressor much until Final Cut Studio 2. Actually, the only reason I started using it was because I had a bunch of .movs that I needed to get into H.264 and .mp4. The ability to batch process a lot of files at once was amazing, and saved quite a bit of time. I could spend a few minutes at the end of the day setting up the batch, hit export, go home, then come back the next day and have all my files finished and where I wanted them.

That was Compressor 3. Then came Compressor 3.5 with the most recent Final Cut Studio. For some reason they decided to change the UI, which I still feel was kind of a step-backwards. Additionally, the whole experience felt sluggish and buggy. For example, the other day I had 75 or so clips that I needed to batch convert. Since Compressor 3.5 is presumably a ‘pro app,’ I figured that it could handle a batch of 75 videos. I was wrong. After pulling them all in to the batch the computer froze for about 2 minutes. After I regained control I tried to apply a setting to the batch, which crashed Compressor. Undaunted, I tried again. Crash. I finally settled on doing 2 batches of around 38 each, and it was able to handle that.

Compressor is really powerful for batch processing, but it also has some really unintuitive quirks. For example, let’s say I have 35 videos I want to convert to H.264. If I select them all I can drag one setting on top of them, it applies the same setting to all of the videos selected, as one might expect. Let’s say that I want them to export to the same location. You can either manually ctrl-click every single Destination (extremely tedious, especially if you miss with your mouse click and have to start over…) on the videos and then apply a specific destination or custom create a destination preset and apply that. Let’s say I do the latter. If I drag the destination onto every video clip selected, one might expect it would apply that destination to every one, right? Wrong. Instead, it creates a new conversion batch with that destination, but with no conversion setting.

In fact, if you batch apply a conversion setting to everything first, there is no way to apply the same destination to them all without ctrl-clicking through every single destination of every single video. If you have 75 (except if you have this many it will crash) it becomes aggravatingly tedious. Is it such an outlying possibility that I might possibly want every video I am converting to a certain format to go into the place? Heaven forbid I might try to be organized and efficient. Granted, there may be a work-around. But even if there is, good interface design would ask the question- why should I need a work-around to accomplish a task that works the first time I do it but fails when I apply it again?

Apart from some of the inexplicably poor interface decisions and the less-than-stellar performance, Compressor does what it does well. While the functionality of Compressor could probably easily be built into FCPX, there are any number of occasions when one might want to batch process a bunch of videos without having to open up an editor.

Prediction: Tighter integration with FCPX, works with batches analogously to batch processing in Photoshop.

image courtesy Apple, Inc.

Motion

Motion first arrived in the original Production Suite and has seen updates in every subsequent release of Final Cut Studio. The jump from Motion 1 to Motion2 was incremental at best, while Motion 3 finally utilized 2.5D space with the Z-plane, giving Motion 3 far more creative options. On the surface Motion 4’s upgrades seem incremental, but the addition of depth of field, shadows, reflections, Optical Flow re-timing and more robust motion tracking and match move behaviors made Motion 4 probably the most substantial update. (Additionally, it was able to import projects exported from Cinema 4D, among others.)

Motion is essentially the younger sibling in the shadow of the oldest child, After Effects. Motion’s penetration into the motion graphics field has been been almost non-existent, as After Effects is essentially the Photoshop of motion graphics. In a way, this has been beneficial to the field, as there is near uniformity in sharing projects, a multitude of effects, plug-ins, tutorials, etc. But in some ways, After Effects has also standardized workflow problems that perhaps have no reason to exist other than that is how they have developed.

It’s not my intention to point out some of the flaws of After Effects, as it is clearly, as of right now, still the go-to motion graphics program. Rather, I think there are some areas where I think Motion approaches motion graphics in a far more intuitive and efficient way.

Motion has been playing catch-up its entire life. Motion 1 and 2 were not even close to being in the same league as After Effects, as they didn’t even have the 2.5D capabilities that After Effects had had for quite awhile. However, Motion did bring something interesting to the table, and that was real-time playback. In After Effects, every change brings about the need to do a RAM preview to see the changes in real-time, which adds time to one’s workflow. For Motion this hardly worked perfectly- get enough objects and filters and effects going and the real-time playback begins to suffer greatly. However, the real-time playback is extremely useful for timing, since it will also play back the audio in real-time, thus freeing up the time spent placing audio markers to do actual animation. For things like kinetic typography this is especially useful.

Motion 4 is a far more mature product than when it started. I should know, as I have used every iteration of Motion. Having used Motion 4 and also having used After Effects CS5, I would venture to say that the core functionality of the two is pretty even. There are some things After Effects definitely does better, while there are some things that, if not better, Motion 4 at least does far more intuitively.

A lot of the resistance and nay-saying of Motion seems to me to be based on a superficial acquaintance with it and it’s functionality. From a lot of the reviews and critiques I have read of Motion 4, a lot of people seem to think that the preset behaviors are the extent of the animation possibilities. Given the powerful keyframe editor in which you can modify the curves, interpolation and timing of nearly every parameter that can be animated, it’s difficult to see how such a critique is valid. For After Effects users attempting to use it, Motion can feel rather clunky. I feel the same way about After Effects. (after all, it’s difficult to wait for a RAM preview for every little change when I am used to instantaneous, real-time feedback.)

The biggest drawback to Motion that I can find is not the core functionality. For example, I have been working on a freelance project where I was sent an After Effects project to complete. In After Effects all of the changes I was tasked with making I could have easily made in Motion, and made in probably less than half of the time. No dramatic work-arounds, no ninja animating tricks that force the program to do what I want it to- rather, just straight up core functionality.

Rather, After Effects really excels (and Motion falters) partly because of the copious amount of 3rd party support. For everyone I ever talked to about upgrading to the 64-bit After Effects CS5, the biggest issue was not the new features it had or how it could help their workflow be more productive, creative or efficient, but rather a concern that all the plug-ins wouldn’t work anymore. A lot of the ways in which After Effects shines is because of the amazing plug-ins that have been developed for it. That is not to disparage After Effects as a product- far from it. I’m the first to admit that it’s great at what it does and in many ways is better than Motion. But I’m also going to be honest and realize that many of the ways in which After Effects shines has little to do with its core functionality in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with that certainly, and a product that has more 3rd-party options available to it is probably better in the long run than one that doesn’t. However, it opens up the door to get out of the monolithic lock-in that has occurred with After Effects. (the same could be said for Photoshop)

I am hoping Apple decides to continue Motion’s development. There has been speculation that Apple is working on some kind of Shake/Motion integration/hybrid, but those rumors have been extant since before the last release of Motion 4. Assuming Apple continues Motion’s development cycle, as I sincerely desire them to do, here is my unsolicited opinion about what I would like to see in Motion 5/X/whatever.

+ More robust cameras. The cameras in Motion at least move and function more intuitively than in After Effects, (as it’s not like driving a really long fire truck from the back…) but could still be more robust. Being able to adjust the aperture and iris more intricately would be great. Additionally, I think adding some camera presets that resemble and function like classic standard cameras or even vintage niche cameras (analagous to how something like Hipstamatic functions for still cameras) could be an interesting addition.

+ Better image sequence controls. You can still get all the control you need over image sequences (retiming, looping, etc.) but not really in an intuitive way. To retime an image sequence, you have to add a retiming behavior which doesn’t really have any relation to the image sequence- that is, you retime it by percentage of time rather than by frames per second, which would make far more sense for an image sequence.

+ More robust lighting and shadows. The lighting controls are not actually that bad, but I feel there could be more options. Motion 4 has the standard light set- point, spot, ambient and directional. I would love to see some kind of global illumination akin to something like Cinema 4D has. Additionally, perhaps some lights that function like softboxes, or at least the ability to add filters, diffusion, etc., to lights, rather than simply reducing the intensity and falloff. In the same way, shadows are not very robust in functionality. Allowing the user to adjust falloff, (if shadows have falloff…lol) diffusion, etc., would be lovely.

+ More stable and reliable RAM previews. Even though Motion is meant to have real-time playback, once you get enough stuff in your project real-time playback begins to suffer, and eventually you have to do a RAM preview. However, the real-time playback, which is great, I suspect also creates reliability problems with the RAM previews. Often, you will render the RAM preview, but when you play it back the frame rate still stutters. This is aggravating, as going to trouble of doing a RAM preview leads one to believe that it will give you a real-time preview. If it doesn’t, it has failed- no way around it.

+ More stability on export. Motion seems to have issues exporting really complicated projects. The odd thing is that the issues are not consistent- some projects I thought would lock it up export without issue, while others that I thought would be fine crashed every time. A few times I have had to export half of the project, go back and export the other half, then put them together in Final Cut. This seems broken to me as well. If Motion is ever going to be in the same league as After Effects, it needs to be stable consistently, even with complicated projects. (*Note. I realize the issue could be my hardware. that’s fine. However, it would be nice if there could be some kind of warning that exporting may fail. Rule of thumb seems to me to be that if I can open it and edit it, I should be able to export it.)

+ Better keying. Keying is one area where After Effects kills Motion. Keylight is, without a doubt, simply amazing. Motion’s keying controls feel amateurish in comparison. This seems to be one area where Motion could really benefit from some kind of Shake integration.

+Parenting. In Motion you can pull off the parenting parameter of After Effects with Match Move. However, it’s not really that intuitive as it is labeled as a behavior rather than built into the timeline. Additionally, it really starts to bog the whole thing down when you use it a lot. I would love to see it employed in a more intuitive way and in a way in which I can still use Motion without being bogged down.

An extra that would be awesome would be style parenting. Imagine you have an object that has color correction, movement animation, scaling, and some other effects applied to it that you want to match with a different object that’s already in your project. You would have to copy and paste all of those behaviors, filters, etc., to the other object. Rather, some kind of style parenting where all the attributes (or selected attributes would be even better) were automatically applied to the desired object would be amazing. Which brings me to…

+ Layer Adjustments. This is another thing that you can pull of in Motion, but not very intuitively. What you can do is group all the objects you want to be affected, and then apply the adjustments to that group. This can get wonky, as some of the effects (I’m looking at you, Equalize) can simply just break the whole thing. Rather, adjustment layers would go a long way to being able to make adjustments such as levels, exposure, curves, etc. And if we’re getting crazy, make the adjustment layer able to function in 2D (it affects all layers below it) or 3D. (all the layers behind it in Z-space, perhaps mapped to the camera angle so it’s not just this big box with edges.)

+ Object Collision and Physics. I’m not even sure if After Effects has this, but it would be amazing to be able to have the different layers have the ability to not go through each other. If there could also be some kind of physics that you could add to the project space, there could be some interesting things done with object collision.

+ Material Options. Motion 4 has a very simplistic materials control for objects, in that you can control the highlights and shininess. I would love to see far more robust controls for materials that could really interact with the lighting and shadows.

+ Particles. Motion actually has a pretty cool particle creation tool. I would love to see this become even more customizable.

+ Output to After Effects. Given the reality of amazing 3rd-party support for After Effects, it would be great to be able to export a Motion project for finishing in After Effects. I would imagine this could happen in a similar way to how Cinema 4D can export the cameras and lights for After Effects or Motion 4. Given the ease and speed with which you can animate in Motion, it would be valuable to be able to take advantage of some of the ways that After Effects really shines.

Anyway, those are a few of the things I would like to see in the new Motion. I sincerely hope Apple continues to develop it. The fact that of all the apps in the Studio Motion has seen the most dramatic upgrades gives me cautious optimism that it will continue to be developed.

To anyone at Apple reading this: If you want to invite me to Cupertino to view a sneak-peek of what you are working on for the next Motion, I will oblige. 🙂

Prediction: Motion will be a stand-alone app.

Final Cut Studio

That brings us to the end of the rampant speculation. The un-bundling of FCPX brings up the question as to if Apple still plans on releases a bundle of apps, or if they will all be priced individually. (assuming FCPX is not the only app in development.) Given my previous predictions, I will wrap it all up with this prediction. Yes, Apple will still bundle its pro apps together for a reduced priced, but also offer them individually, much like Adobe does with its Production Premium Suite. My prediction is that Final Cut Studio 4/X/whatever will look something like this:

Final Cut Pro X (Color, Soundtrack and Compressor built in)

Logic Studio

Motion 5

DVD Studio as legacy install.

Price: $800

Enjoy.

3 comments

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  • Very nice insight and optimistic speculation. In my quest to find a true FCS4 release date for my Charlotte, NC based video production company, Visually CREATIVE Video, I found the approach you took to be well voiced and thorough. It’s refreshing to read a review or “want list” from someone that you can tell actually uses the programs. Most other posts have obviously been created by people that are just reciting what they read elsewhere. Hopefully, Apple will read this and adjust FCS4 to address some of the many useful points you have brought to light.

  • Thank you for your comments!

    I do hope that Apple continues development of its Pro Apps, although I hope that my suggestions aren’t the extent of the development!

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Jason Watson

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