Final Cut Studio 3 review

It has been more than two years since the last version of Final Cut Studio; but any thoughts that Apple was neglecting the professional video market have been washed away with this, the third version of Final Cut Studio. This flagship suite comprises Final Cut Pro 7, Motion 4, Soundtrack Pro 3, Color 1.5, Compressor 3.5 and DVD Studio Pro 4.

Final Cut Pro 7, Apple’s pro-level non-linear video editing app, is the main attraction. While there are a few exciting new features in Final Cut Pro 7 – among them new ProRes codecs, iChat Theater, and Easy Export that will attract lots of attention – the main focus of this version is enhancing stability, speed, and productivity.

ProRes enhancements

ProRes, Apple’s high-definition lossy video compression format used in post-production, was introduced in 2007 with Final Cut Pro 6. The new variations are designed to broaden the codec family’s capabilities into higher-end post-production, news markets, and offline editing. In the most compelling new feature of this release, Apple builds on the success of its excellent ProRes codec family by adding three new versions: ProRes 4444, ProRes 422 (LT), and ProRes 422 (Proxy).

ProRes 4444 is designed for highest-end work or compositing with alpha channel. The LT version is for lightweight deliverables, such as broadcast, while the 422 (Proxy) is specifically for offline editing. That’s in addition to the two versions for ‘normal’ editing and finishing – the standard version for most projects, and the HQ for higher-end quality, which are still included.

Easier exporting

Easy Export will probably be the favourite new feature of most editors for its ease of use and time-saving. Found under File➝Share, it replaces Export Via Compressor. At first, it looks like Apple has just lifted a page from the Share interface of iMovie ’09, but there’s more to it than that. There are three aspects of the Easy Export feature that significantly enhance productivity and flexibility.

You can assign settings for target outputs such as Web, iPod, Apple TV, or DVD, directly in Final Cut Pro without having to launch Compressor, thus keeping the editor in the friendly and familiar confines of Final Cut Pro.

You can assign post compression Job Actions to any of the queued targets, which are more extensive than the options you could to assign in Compressor in the past. You can, for instance, do any of the following with the click of a button: post directly to MobileMe upon completion of compression; import into iTunes to sync to AppleTV, iPod or iPhone; publish directly to YouTube; burn a DVD or Blu-ray disc directly from this interface without going to DVD Studio Pro; or create your own post render process within Compressor, even launching Automator scripts. Then, of course, you can make them available via the Share interface. All of the above can happen in the background, meaning you can export from Final Cut Pro in the background and keep editing.

You can burn a Blu-ray disc directly from within Final Cut Pro 7. The downside is that Apple (as of this writing) still doesn’t sell a Blu-ray capable SuperDrive, so you have to get a third-party drive. You can, however, burn AVCHD Blu-ray content to a standard recordable DVD in your SuperDrive via Share, and that will play in a Blu-ray player. DVDs and Blu-ray have a limited slate of templates to choose from, but you can at least assign custom graphics (with alpha) for background, logo, and title graphics, and even generate a chapter menu.

Another significant catch – Easy Export is powerful, convenient and useful, but that is the extent of Blu-ray support in the entire Final Cut Studio suite. DVD Studio Pro does not support Blu-ray in any fashion, and gets only the smallest of increments – from version 4.2.1 to 4.2.2. Considering that Adobe has offered Blu-ray authoring support on Intel Macs for two years, this is a startling hole in Final Cut Studio’s capabilities.

Steady improvements

A new interface for the Change Speed window lets you set Ease In and Ease Out, and has an option that lets you keep the timeline from rippling so you can doodle without pushing the rest of the timeline further down the sequence. Also, a new interface element gives you keyframes in the timeline and a graphic display of how stretched your video is in time.

Final Cut Pro 7 also includes support for Alpha transitions. These are scene transitions that use an animated graphic element with a matte (or alpha channel, thus the name) to do a wipe between two shots. They’re a bit hammy so whether you will ever use them seriously is debatable, but the feature is there if you want it.

Final Cut now supports native editing of the AVC-Intra format – you can import it and edit it directly in its native file format (as it was captured), rather than having to import and wait for it to transcode to ProRes before it is editable in Final Cut Pro. Native support also includes RT Extreme acceleration for real time transitions and effects.

This version of Final Cut Pro includes much improved closed captioning support, the ability to globally change transitions (or pick the ones you want to change in bulk), improved tabs (colour coding and other improvements), trackpad multi-touch gesture support for timeline navigation, and a new version of Cinema Tools for working with file-based workflows like image sequences and Redcode footage.

iChat Theater will be a boon to editors cutting remotely. What if you could send the live output of your edit session to someone over iChat? And wouldn’t it be nice to have a picture-in-picture of yourself over the video so you could talk to the remote client on video chat while editing? And wouldn’t it be nice to have a timecode burn-in on screen while you did it? Now you can. Of course, how well this works is entirely dependent on how fast your internet connection is.

Compressor 3.5

Apple’s Compressor has always had a sole mission: to compress video footage to other formats. Older versions of Compressor allowed you to launch an AppleScript after compression. However, AppleScript remains a mystery to most Mac users. So now we have Job Actions, accessed via simple pop-up menus, to do the things users most often want to do with compressed files. For example, Compressor can produce playable DVD or Blu-ray discs from just-compressed movies automatically, post movies to YouTube or MobileMe, or put them into iTunes.

Batch Templates expand on the Job Action idea and let you create your own end-to-end workflows. For example, you can compress a file to multiple formats, and then publish some files on the company website, burn others to a DVD, and also burn a Blu-ray disc (or Blu-ray content to a recordable DVD) – all from a single Batch Template. There are several useful workflows already built into the program, and you can easily create your own in Compressor with a few clicks.

DVD and Blu-ray encoding and burning are possible here, as elsewhere in Final Cut Studio, but this is the only Blu-ray support within the suite.

Another improvement is image sequence support for TIFF, Targa, DPX, and OpenEXR formats. These sequences are treated as a single clip instead of a pile of individual frames, a significant improvement for compositors and film workflows. Network rendering for clusters has also advanced. And of course, Compressor 3.5 supports all the new ProRes versions.

OUR VERDICT

With Final Cut Pro 7, Apple takes an already excellent market-leading tool even further, with significant improvements that will benefit editors doing realistic day-to-day tasks and enable them to get better work done even faster. The background processing, Easy Export, and new ProRes codecs alone make this a worthwhile upgrade. Compressor, one of our favourite nerdy utilities, is now more powerful, easier to use, and does more – a win-win proposition if ever there was one. Motion continues to get more robust with this new version. If you have a fast new machine – especially with a high-powered graphics card like the ATI Radeon HD 4870 – you can get complex work done amazingly quickly, while previewing as you work. For motion graphics, Motion is now a serious rival to Adobe After Effects.

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