How unclear use of language has caused two weeks of panic about FCP X

Over the last two weeks, a huge amount of grief and panic has been caused by imprecise use of language. Specifically, the definition of the word “pro” that has been implicitly adopted in the pro vs. consumer FCP X conversation, is incoherent. As a consequence, the word “consumer” is also being misapplied. Nobody seems to have noticed.

Look at the features that have become the focus of this debate: XML/OMF/EDL export, audio track assignment, deck control, video I/O. Who needs these features? Primarily, it’s people delivering for broadcast, and people cutting feature films. That’s what “pro” has come to mean in the current discussion: broadcast and feature film work. And if you’re not a pro, you’re a consumer.

This has lead to the creation of a narrative in which the old FCP was targeted primarily at pros, because it had these features, while the new version is targeted primarily at consumers, because it lacks these features. In other words, Apple’s focus has shifted, from the pro market to the consumer market.

The problem becomes obvious when you restate this narrative with the unpacked definitions of “pro” and “consumer”. The old version of FCP was targeted primarily at editors doing broadcast/feature work because —

Wait. No. It wasn’t.

FCP has always been primarily targeted at the overwhelming majority of actual video pros (defined here simply as people who get paid to edit video) who don’t do broadcast/feature work — they do web video, event video, corporate video. These folks are probably more than 80% of the market for video editing software sold at a non-trivial price point.

This is why Apple didn’t wait on features like XML support before shipping FCP X. Not because it’s a “consumer” product (consumers do not buy $300 content creation software), but because most of the actual pro video market — if we count everyone who makes money editing video as a pro — does not require high-end workflow features.

Fundamentally, Apple’s priorities didn’t shift from the original Final Cut Pro to FCP X. The reason FCP 7 had a bunch of features to support more niche markets, and the initial release of FCP X is missing some of these features, is simple: ‘classic’ FCP had been around longer, so Apple had worked its way around to implementing lower-priority features, i.e. features that matter to fewer customers.

The same thing will happen — is happening already — with FCP X. If you believe this process lead to a credible tool for broadcast/feature work the last time around, there is no reason to believe it won’t this time. And probably a lot faster; the first release of FCP X is much closer to meeting the requirements of these market segments than Final Cut Pro 1.0 was in 1999.

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On risk, failure, and the future of Final Cut Pro

(The title of this post is shamelessly derived from the Creative Cow forum post that inspired me to write it.)

For reasons I’ve already laid out at extensive length, I am entirely convinced that Apple does not intend to abandon the pro video editing market. If that’s the case, Final Cut Pro X is clearly a huge risk. Apple is not a company that’s afraid of risk, however.

One of my favorite examples of this dates to the early days of the iPod, when Apple introduced the iPod mini, which had 1/4 of the storage of other iPods, and was only $50 cheaper.

Critics were all sure the iPod mini would fail; who’d buy a player with a capacity that much smaller, just to get a slimmer form factor? A year later, the mini was the most popular music player in the world, and Apple canceled it to introduce the iPod nano, which was the same price and had even less storage space. The nano, of course, went on to cement Apple’s position as the overwhelmingly dominant force in the music player market.

From the Mac’s two major architectural transitions, to the elimination of the floppy drive in 1998, to the launch of the iPad into a tablet market that had been moribund for a decade, Apple is a company that often takes risks, and rarely fails.

Well, Apple has unleashed Final Cut Pro X on the editing community, and the editing community is up in arms. Is FCP X one of Apple’s rare failures?

I doubt it.

The truth is, most of the backlash over the last ten days has not been a direct consequence of people reacting negatively to the product’s substance. It has been a consequence of people erroneously believing, because of a handful of missing features, some superficial similarities with iMovie, and a whole lot of preexisting paranoia, that FCP X signals Apple’s departure from the pro market.

Many people who have actually sat down to edit something with the new app, giving it a fair shot on its own terms instead of merely being frustrated that it works differently, have said positive things about it. My experience has been that the new timeline is really just a lot of fun to edit with (the importance of this should not be underestimated), there are some great new organizational features, and in terms of speed and quality, the new engine is a home run.

Six months from now, you will be able to take a sequence out of FCP X and bring it into Resolve. There will probably be a way to export OMF that doesn’t cost $500. You will have more control over audio track exports. You will almost certainly be able to hook up a real video monitor. While some detractors will still grasp at straws, and while there will still be a few gaps and limitations here and there, the claims that FCP X is not a pro app will have been pretty thoroughly undermined.

Pros will start doing interesting things with it. After a while someone will cut an indie feature with it, and Apple will run a profile on them where they rave about the importance of metadata and the freedom of the magnetic timeline, and talk about how they did assembly edits on location using MacBook Pros with Thunderbolt RAIDs.

Word will get around that rumors of Final Cut’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

Nobody has to believe me about this today. Ultimately, we’ll have to wait and see. But, not to toot my own horn too much here, I am the guy who predicted this whole present blowup, in broad strokes, over a year ago:

We’re going to get the OpenCL and Grand Central Dispatch goodness that everyone wants. But we’re not going to get an app with a strict superset of Final Cut Pro’s functionality. Instead, we’re going to get an app that Apple believes is better overall for the tasks video editors perform, even if some features are cut. And we might also get a significantly overhauled UI; something that results from a process of sitting down and questioning every assumption about how editing interfaces currently work.

In short, I think they’ll come up with something really interesting… that will probably cause a bunch of people to totally freak out about how Apple has ruined everything and make forceful public declarations about how they’re leaving the platform. Meanwhile, people actually willing to embrace the thing might discover it has a bit of that iPad ‘magic’.

I think I have a pretty good feel for these things.

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Getting inside the magnetic timeline’s head

I’ve seen a lot of hatred toward Final Cut Pro X’s new magnetic timeline over the last nine days. I’m increasingly coming to believe it’s all a big misunderstanding.

Most of the resentment of the magnetic timeline, as far as I’ve seen, seems to revolve around how it handles clip collisions. In particular, a lot of people seem to be viewing the new timeline’s behavior as bumping clips to other tracks without asking them, and thus viewing FCP X as having tracks they can’t control. But that’s not quite right.

If we define a ‘track’ as a linear container for clips, that runs the full length of the sequence, Final Cut Pro has exactly one of these: the primary storyline. It’s the only place you can drop a clip in an empty sequence, and it’s the only vertical area of the sequence that’s visually demarcated. Even the primary storyline, however, is not quite the sort of track you might be used to:

The fundamental organizational principle of the magnetic timeline is not based around tracks, but around relationships between clips. When two clips collide, and FCP X moves one of them above or below the other, that moved clip isn’t being bumped to another track. There are no tracks. Rather, FCP X is simply overlapping those clips. Vertical stacking is just the way overlapping is presented. FCP X doesn’t have tracks the user can’t control. It has clip relationships the user can control, and it presents the relationships the user has defined using a standardized visual representation.

Looked at in this light, complaining that you can’t directly control what ‘track’ a clip is on in FCP X is like opening a raw text document in a text editor, and complaining that it automatically lays out each character in sequence, in a series of horizontal lines, instead of allowing you to position each character where you want it.

There’s nothing at all ‘unprofessional’ about FCP X’s approach here. In fact, using clip relationships rather than tracks as the fundamental organizational principle for a sequence is extremely powerful, and it’s clear that a huge amount of thought went into this design. But it’s very different, and a lot of people don’t seem to have made a serious attempt to understand it before deciding to hate it.

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Final Cut Pro X critical feature update

Six days ago, I identified what I believed were the four major features that prevented FCP X from being integrated into high-end editing environments. They were:

  1. A way to export sequence data.
  2. More audio exporting features.
  3. Support for third-party I/O hardware.
  4. Multicam.

The FAQ Apple released today speaks directly to three of these. On exporting sequence data:

We will release a set of APIs in the next few weeks so that third-party developers can access the next-generation XML in Final Cut Pro X.

On audio exporting:

An update this summer will allow you to use metadata tags to categorize your audio clips by type and export them directly from Final Cut Pro X.

On multicam:

Multicam editing is an important and popular feature, and we will provide great multicam support in the next major release.

On support for third-party I/O hardware, Apple is a little vague. They say they’re working with hardware vendors, but they don’t explicitly say they’re going to support real video output. That’s the way I’d bet, but for the skeptics, I have nothing concrete to point to today.

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Breaking: Final Cut Pro X is an Apple product

FCPX/Apple

I mention this because some people are acting as if they are unaware of this fact. What are the three major complaints about the FCP X rollout?

  1. The first release is missing some features that conventional industry wisdom would consider critical.
  2. There is virtually no communication about future plans.
  3. Backwards compatibility has been sacrificed on the alter of innovation.

You see where I’m going here, yes? A lot of people have tried to explain these three data points with the theory that FCP X is deliberately abandoning the professional market and/or that Apple is simply clueless about what features high-end pros need. But no such theory is required. All of this is entirely normal behavior for Apple, Inc. Examples abound, including in key markets that nobody could possibly argue Apple didn’t care about.

With respect to the first point, for instance, iOS initially shipped without copy & paste, third-party app support, multitasking, Exchange support, over the air updating, MMS, tethering support, etc. all of which conventional wisdom said one couldn’t ship a smartphone without. The first iPhone hardware lacked GPS and 3G. The first iPad lacked a camera, which many considered a basic feature, and the iPad 2 still lacks USB ports.

With respect to the second point, virtually the only time Apple talks about future products significantly before a product’s release date is when developers have to have time to prepare for them or when, for some reason (required FCC filings for the iPhone, for instance), it would be impossible to keep them secret. There are no FCC concerns here, and while there are a few developers Apple might want to bring into the fold with respect to future FCP X developments, this can be done quietly.

With respect to the third point, all you have to do is look at how Apple handled its transition to a fully modern OS vs. how Microsoft handled its transition. Microsoft’s approach was far more gradual, and eventually brought old apps over in a way that felt ‘native’. Apple cut the cord and stuck the old OS in the Classic virtual machine, where there was no attempt to make old apps behave like native apps. Apple is also being relatively aggressive dropping Rosetta (PPC emulation) from OS X — it’s gone in Lion. Apple has simply never had much interest in extensive backwards compatibility efforts; they’ll do the minimum required, and in this case that means allowing FCP 7 to be installed alongside FCP X.

The way the FCP X rollout has been handled has nothing to do with Apple slighting pro users — it’s just Apple being Apple. It’s annoying as hell sometimes, but while it’s temping to believe Apple could discard these behaviors and deliver equally successful products, I’m not sure that’s actually the case.

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The “FCP X is not a pro app” narrative

So, the emerging narrative among a certain subset of the Internet post production community is that Final Cut Pro X isn’t a ‘pro’ app. But I’ve seen a lot of Internet firestorms around Apple product announcements over the years. I’ve watched Apple closely for the entire Jobs (and now pseudo post-Jobs) era. And I don’t buy it.

To me, this looks like another one of those situations where there are multiple narratives that fit the same underlying set of facts, and a bunch of people decide, for whatever reason, to embrace one that makes Apple look terrible.

In this respect, it’s much like the iPhone 4 antenna issue. It eventually came out that Apple knew about the underlying technical issue there before ever shipping the device. But they also knew that in the real world the iPhone 4 actually held onto calls better in a lot of instances. Their comprehensive testing had shown they’d made reasonable design tradeoffs. They clearly never expected the issue to be framed the way it was in the tech media. They were, as a consequence, no doubt surprised by the resulting backlash.

With FCP X, Apple has introduced something that has quite a few pro features, was introduced at an event for pros, is positioned as the successor to a pro product, and has ‘Pro’ in the name. I think they anticipated people understanding it as a pro product that’s still missing some features (because it was just rewritten from scratch), and are probably surprised by the number of people who are determined to see it as a non-pro product, and are seizing on every possible justification to support that conclusion.

The truth is, you can play that game with anything. I could make a very compelling argument that FCP X is a pro app and it’s Final Cut Pro 7 that’s not. I mean, a bunch of effects in FCP 7 render in 8-bit! How amateur is that? FCP 7 won’t even warn you when exporting a sequence with offline media! I can’t work with important projects like that! And how am I ever supposed to organize long-form projects if I can’t even tag things? And don’t forget the QuickTime gamma bugs.

I’m familiar enough with FCP 7 to go on for a long time like this, but you get the idea.

There are, when you get right down to it, a grand total of about four big things missing from FCP X that matter to high-end users:

  1. A way to export sequence data.
  2. More audio exporting features.
  3. Support for third-party I/O hardware.
  4. Multicam.

And not all of these matter to all high-end users. For instance, we mostly work on features, and couldn’t care less about multicam in that context.

Combine these missing features with some iMovie user interface similarities, and a bunch of people who’ve already been skeptical about Apple’s commitment to the pro market for the last couple of years (ironically, skeptical because Apple hadn’t yet rewritten FCP as a 64-bit Cocoa app, which is precisely what FCP X is), and you get the current PR mess.

But the actual material facts in no way conclusively support the narrative of Apple abandoning pros. Many of the features FCP X does have, as well as some of what we’re hearing out of Apple via Philip Hodgetts and David Pogue, point in the other direction: that FCP X is a pro app. It’s just a pro app that happens to be missing some features in its first release. And Apple is not unaware of this, and is working to resolve it.

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Is Python the future of Final Cut Pro X workflow?

So, this is a little more geeky than is normal even for this blog, but I ran the Unix ‘strings’ command on the Final Cut Pro X binary. This command tries to extract things that look like bits of human-readable text out of binary files. Used on Cocoa apps like FCP X, it can often turn up the names of internal methods, classes, etc. Here are some of the more interesting strings it found:

PEXMLImport
PEXMLImportButton
importXML:
importFinalCutXML
importXMLViaAppleScript:
scriptingExportListAsXML:

/System/Library/Frameworks/Python.framework/Python
Py_IsInitialized
Py_Initialize
Py_SetProgramName
PyRun_SimpleFileExFlags
/usr/bin/python
FCPythonPluginExecutor
sharedManager
loadPythonScriptAtPath:runFunction:withArguments:
setupPythonEnvironment
PEPythonPluginManager
loadPythonModuleAtPath:functionName:arguments:

This suggests partial or stub implementations of XML import and Python scripting features are already present. As far as the XML import goes, my guess is FCP X was supposed to ship with XML import, and this was the solution for bringing in FCP 7 projects… but it wasn’t done in time and they decided to ship anyway.

Notice that there’s no XML exporting, however. (Except maybe clip lists?) What’s the deal with that? Well, Python might actually explain that. Normally if I saw references to Python like this in an app, I’d assume it was merely being used internally by the app, but here it appears along with references to plug-ins. My guess is that the plan is to allow third-parties to write Python scripts that hook directly into FCP X. This could, if implemented the right way, be far more powerful than simple XML exporting, because it could give third-party tools access to FCP X’s functionality, not just to static project data.

We’ll have to wait and see what comes of this, but these indicators do look promising.

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A ‘pro’ app with missing features

Well, the “It’s not a pro app!” freak-outs have started. The only real surprises for me, in terms of feature omissions, are support for video I/O cards and XML exporting. I expected those things to be there from day one, and they’re not.

But I don’t buy that this isn’t a pro app. To me, this looks a lot more like a pro app that was pushed out the door with features still missing than like a consumer app. It has DPX/OpenEXR exporting, 4K support, and credible video scopes… these are not ‘consumer’ features. Plus, there’s the extensive metadata/tagging stuff, which seems designed for large, complex projects.

OpenEXR is not, last time I checked, a consumer video format.

Why would Apple do this, instead of waiting and doing a more feature-complete release later? Well, the key to answering that question is to look at who this release is useful to: it’s seriously useful to anyone who does work in formats FCP 7 doesn’t support natively, and who doesn’t need offline/online editing. Among other folks, this includes most DSLR shooters, who are a pretty big market. Apple presumably figured it was worth getting something out there for these folks ASAP.

The real issue here is that Apple is sufficiently secretive about its decision making process that they’re probably not just going to come out and say this; they’re going to let people freak out for, probably, months, before missing features start quietly showing up in updates.

If this seems hard to swallow, consider that we’re talking about the same company that, in 2007, shipped a new smartphone platform that didn’t support third-party apps, copy and paste, and other features that people thought should be taken for granted, without so much as a word about future plans to fill in those gaps. People freaked out. But things turned out pretty well for the iPhone in the long run.

FCP X seems to provide a strong technical foundation, and some long overdue rethinking of the standard non-linear editing user interface conventions. Apple has a history of starting off with simplified products and building on them incrementally. Being annoyed by the fact that FCP X isn’t useful (to you) today is perfectly reasonable; personally I was hoping it would solve a couple of problems for us that it doesn’t solve yet. But writing off Apple in the pro video editing market is premature.

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“The Bleeding House” premieres at Tribeca

The Bleeding House (formerly County Road K), on which we provided digital dailies, workflow support, and color grading, is currently showing at Tribeca, and being distributed by Tribeca Film. Produced by Will Battersby, Tory Tunnell and Per Melita, directed by comic book creator Philip Gelatt, and shot by Frederic Fasano, who has previously shot films for Italian horror master Dario Argento, it’s a seriously creepy indie horror film.

Nice Dissolve graded The Bleeding House from raw Red files in DaVinci Resolve, to preserve as much image data as possible through the pipeline. While this is our standard workflow, it was particularly important on this project, as principle photography predated the existence of the much more light sensitive Mysterium-X Red, and a significant portion of the film is comprised of night exteriors. Working from raw files allowed us to reach down into the shadows to recover image that other workflows would have lost.

The film, which employs a visual style carefully crafted to inflict a sense of tense unease, is a great example of how a cost-effective indie post process based around today’s high-powered commodity hardware and software tools can produce entirely uncompromising results.

A trailer is available from Apple’s trailer site, you can rent the film on iTunes or Amazon, and of course, if you hurry you can still catch screenings at Tribeca.

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The end of project files?

Take a look at this little section of the Final Cut Pro X user interface:

I think this post over in the Creative Cow forums correctly identifies this as a mechanism for switching between multiple open sequences. That should allay some people’s fears that the new UI doesn’t seem to allow for easily working between multiple sequences.

But there’s something else here. Look at the icon. It’s a document icon. Next to a sequence.

Now, have a look at the Event Library:

You might notice a few things:

  • It’s rooted at the storage device.
  • There’s no reference to any specific project. (Based on the icon, “Audi” is clearly a collection of footage, not a project.)
  • There are no sequences mixed in with the clips.
  • It’s called, well, “Event Library”.

In the current version of Final Cut Pro, the documents you work with are project files that represent collections of media and sequences. Looking at these screenshots it seems clear that this is not how FCP X works. In FCP X, rather:

  • Sequences are stand-alone documents.
  • All of your media lives in a single library broken up into collections called “events”.
  • Projects are probably gone altogether.

Properly implemented, this could be an extremely flexible and robust approach to managing footage. And it’s a big shift, that reenforces how seriously Apple has questioned the usual set of assumptions about how a non-linear editing app should work.

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