With the release of Final Cut Pro X (FCP X), Apple has adopted a radical new approach that will dramatically change the future of non-linear video editing. FCP X is not an upgrade of Final Cut Studio, but rather an entirely new application that shares the same name.

As more and more video camera manufacturers abandon tape-based conventional recording, smaller, more powerful video cameras have evolved, recording increasingly vast amounts of data. With FCP X, Apple shifts its flagship video editor’s emphasis to tapeless, metadata-based shooting and production techniques that accommodate this emerging data-centric workflow.

In acknowledging and embracing this change, Apple offers users a new paradigm for editing, organisation, performance and post-production workflow. Most of the features introduced in FCP X are welcome and badly needed. Some are long overdue. Still, others are positively jarring and require a change in mindset to appreciate.

Here is an expanded view of the Compound Clips feature in FCP X. It lets users simplify complex content groupings into a single element, all linked together to maintain audio and video sync.

The burning question is whether FCP X is a real professional NLE application, designed for industrial delivery of video assets to businesses large and small, or whether it’s merely a souped-up version of iMovie, just one step ahead of the consumer market.

Part of why I say that FCP X represents a radical change is that perhaps we should consider that the question might no longer be relevant. There are all different kinds of professional video editors and editing environments, and to try to limit that definition seems self defeating.

Much of FCP X version 1.0 is staggeringly impressive. There’s no doubt that Apple’s under-the-hood engineering will make life very fluid for some editors. On the other hand, this product at launch is nowhere near perfect, and is sure to defy expectations and disappoint many longtime working video pros who spent the last year looking forward to an upgrade of Final Cut Studio.

Despite many reservations about the new FCP X, after a thorough testing of the app, I’m cautiously on board. Here’s why.

Interface retake

The new FCP X interface borrows liberally from Final Cut Server and iMovie, and barely hints at the power of the underlying toolset.

Ingesting directly from the camera into FCP X is as simple and straightforward as it is in iPhoto, if you have an approved camera and the related device driver software installed. It supports all Apple mobile devices: iPhone, iPad, iPod and iPod touch.

The Magnetic Timeline is a quantum leap in video interface design. The power behind this methodology is evident. You now have the ability to grab and move clips in and out of the timeline such that moving one part of your timeline will not bump, nudge, overwrite or completely mess up some other part of your project. This is a huge accomplishment.

Moreover, the need to maintain an elemental level of connection is vital. Apple does that in FCP X with the Clip Connections feature. It’s more than just a simple visual indicator of what parts your project media is linked to while on the timeline. Clip Connections offers a powerful yet simple, easy way to maintain the linking of video, audio, sound, effects and even graphics and music, allowing all media to be treated as a single contiguous element.

In this view, note that the Compound Clip has been edited in the timeline so it is only partially available.

Clip Connections maintains content sync using just metadata, and it does so transparently. This is not how grouping or linking works in other software. Here your content is bonded to the other elements, connecting invisibly without key commands or secret tricks.

As an editor, it’s difficult to accept an NLE handling tasks without me directing the action. While not everything is handled perfectly, in my testing, the App was prone to error only when syncing surround sound projects. In fairness, the error rate was not higher than if I handled the same files manually.

To get an idea of how to work with FCP X, start a new project from scratch. If nothing else, go out and shoot something specific for your first FCP X project, using the most modern tapeless camera you can.

It takes some time to get comfortable with the new interface, and I found the experience disorienting at first. You cannot expect to open any existing project file. FCP X is not backward compatible with projects created in Final Cut Studio, because of the underlying architecture changes in the new version that allow for all the new capabilities.

Don’t expect to use many of your time honoured keyboard commands, either. The essentials are still there, but the function key commands have been remapped.

The Event Library offers users a simplified view setting, so that only the project and media you are working with appear in an easy, concise view.

Some cameras that are popular with video pros might have minor issues. For example, in my tests, the software did not support importing media directly from Sony’s EX1, so media transfer had to first go through Sony’s XDCam Transfer Tool, and then get imported as files, much the same way it was handled previously.

Likewise, ingest from Arri’s Alexa is limited, as metadata from that camera is handled as an FCP 7-compatible XML sidecar file. This version of Final Cut Pro currently does not support any XML formats, which will give broadcasting professionals some pause.

To handle scratch disk allocation, you no longer define a location based on a system level setting, you now define disk locations and move data directly when an Event is created, or from within the Event Library.

Click on little sprocket/gear icon at the bottom of the Event window and select the Group Events by Disk command. Then you can move or allocate media to any attached volume listed.

Another change comes within the Clip Browser, where you now skim through your video files at a speed never before possible, making the JKL keyboard method positively lethargic by comparison.

I have never personally used clip views, preferring to rely on the list view in my browser when editing. Yet this skimming function is so incredibly fast and functional that it has changed my mode of operation. The power behind skimming also allows real time preview of your filters and effects in both the viewer and as thumbnails.

Organisational overhaul

With a new feature called Auto Content-Analysis, FCP X automatically analyses your media during import and archives critical information from the camera’s metadata, such as colour balance, movement and rolling shutter artifacts, while the application adds tracking and stabilisation information and checks for the presence and number of human faces in each shot, all on a clip-by-clip basis. This feature then populates and labels the Smart Collections (colour coded in purple) in the Event Library, with your media flagged indicating each category.

By handling all of this analytical information at ingest, FCP X tags the files with additional metadata in a manner that speeds file processing, delivery and rendering capabilities and vastly accelerates workflow.

The power does not stop there. After ingest, your media is processed in the manner of an assistant editor, with the application automatically grouping shots based on close-ups and wide shots, for example.

By adding your own keywords to the automatic ones that the program generates, you can also flag content based on client, location, time of day, B-roll or even script notes, letting you organise your media in nearly an infinite variety of ways.

All this action is invisibly handled in the background because FCP X is a 64-bit application, working with a 64-bit operating system.

Performance

Without exception, FCP X is the fastest NLE I have edited on without the assistance of dedicated hardware. That performance gain comes from the program’s native 64-bit toolset and the operating system’s Grand Central Dispatch, which harnesses power from the GPU processing as well as the multicore CPU.

This 64-bit architecture lets FCP X access every byte of RAM, execute true multi-processing across all CPU cores, and unlock GPU-based graphics processing. Because FCP X processing is scalable, it’s always using the maximum power available to your computer, whether it be a MacBook Pro or a Mac Pro tower. Final Cut Pro X finally utilises every CPU and GPU cycle to accelerate background processes.

That is done while simultaneously archiving the data stream and rendering, transcoding and moving content in the background, all without bringing your machine to a grinding halt. Now, the extra RAM, disk speed and powerful graphics card add a noticeable speed boost to your machine.

With that power, tasks like ingesting media become a minor background chore rather than a consuming process. You can immediately start editing in the foreground while the file is being transferred or transcoded for proxy creation, all of which happens in the background.

There’s a noticeable improvement in media handling and responsiveness after the transfer/ingest is complete. This is due to additional processing power being allocated back to application as soon as the Finder has completed its tasks.

Full-screen timeline view.

Final Cut Pro X never lagged, even as I pushed the machine to the limit, often while rendering high resolution output as DPX frames and simultaneously transferring media to multiple external drives, in addition to rendering files for playback on my iPad and prepping content to be edited on a MacBook Pro.

This is genuine multitasking and it feels good.