Final Cut Pro 4 (FCP4) has been one of the most eagerly awaited upgrades in recent times. While most upgrades bring new features, improvements and workflow enhancements, FCP4 provides much more than this. Indeed it’s no longer fair to call it a single application – it’s now a suite of five: Final Cut Pro, the editor we have come to know and love; LiveType, a text-manipulation program that allows for the creation of complex moving titles; Soundtrack, designed for creating musical scores; Compressor, a facility that provides batch export of files to MPEG-2, MPEG-4 and QuickTime; and Cinema Tools, for film production. This is used to conform the original camera negative with the edit produced in Final Cut Pro.
Inside the box are three chunky manuals, a slim tutorial manual, and four DVDs. An additional CD includes Bias Peak Express 3.3, an audio sound sweetening program. The three manuals are devoted to the operational side of FCP4 while the other applications – Compressor, Soundtrack, LiveType and Cinema Tools – have manuals provided in PDF format. Total documentation runs close to 3,000 pages, so get ready for a lot of printing and reading unless you’re good at working things out for yourself.
I have to admit that I was quite excited as I launched FCP4 for the first time. I was immediately in familiar territory. Apple has kept the overall look-&-feel of the program very similar to the previous version. The interface is more streamlined, sharper, and slightly more colourful. Gone is the yellow patching facility on the left hand-side of the Timeline. In its place are break-off video and audio tabs.
When connected, video or audio flows to the selected tracks; when disconnected, the flow is restricted. The monitoring buttons now appear as green radio buttons, and the Linked Selection and Snapping controls have also changed in appearance.
These subtle changes are minimal. Once you start using the program, operational differences immediately become apparent. The most obvious of these is what Apple calls Realtime Extreme. This, as the name implies, allows for real-time effects to be played through FireWire. The amount of real-time performance is affected by the setting chosen in the Playback Control Tab found at the top-left of the Timeline. I played around with the settings, eventually settling on Unlimited RT with low playback quality. The unlimited RT option provides the most in the way of real-time effects. The trade-off is an increase in the likelihood of dropped frames. In practice, I was able to preview virtually all transitions and most filters in real-time, and up to three layers of video tracks. The results varied from flawless playback to jerky stuttering images. However, most of the time the results provided a decent representation of what the final rendered effect would look like.
Furthermore I was able to keyframe filters in real-time, preview picture-in-pictures, and apply colour-correction filters – all through FireWire. This is a huge step forward from the real-time capabilities of Final Cut Pro 3, where only a limited amount of effects could be previewed on-screen without playback through FireWire. In FCP3, no filters could be previewed in real-time.
Auto Render is a new feature, set in Preferences, which automatically renders material in the timeline when the machine is left unattended. This is a brilliant timesaver. I accidentally discovered this feature on returning to my Mac to find a message stating that the render process was complete.
The keyboard is now fully customized. For editors migrating from other systems, this feature will be a godsend. Every single button on the keyboard can be remapped to perform specific functions; thus an Avid or Media 100 editor can set the keyboard to emulate the workflow they’re used to. Furthermore, once set, the keyboard layout can be exported and then imported to work with other Final Cut Pro systems.
In practice, the keyboard remapping capabilities are simple and easy to use. I was able to work out the basic keyboard remapping functions without even looking at the manual. Simply choose Keyboard Layout found under the tools menu, select Customize, and map the function from a list of available options to the key of your choice. If you mess up the settings, there’s a handy reset button that restores the keyboard layout to the standard settings.
In addition to being able to remap the keyboard, the user can also create Shortcut Buttons. These buttons can then be placed at the top of the major windows to create button bars. At the touch of a button, rather than using a series of key combination, one can easily perform a variety of commands.
Apple made a big deal about the introduction of colour-correction capabilities when FCP3 was released. While the facilities remain as before, a new one – the Frame Viewer – allows one to visually compare before-&-after frames from a clip using a vertical or horizontal split. This is remarkably easy to use, and incredibly useful. In combination with RT Extreme, the Frame Viewer makes colour-correction within Final Cut Pro a much more efficient and achievable process.
The Time Remapping tool is a handy new feature that allows the editor to speed up, slow down, and ramp footage between various speeds. While I did manage to achieve a result using Time Remapping, I found the controls slightly unwieldy.
My favourite feature, next to RT Extreme, has to be the Audio Mixer. Mixing sound in Final Cut Pro has, until now, been a start-stop process. While the newly added audio mixer doesn’t provide all the features of a true hardware mixer, it certainly goes a long way to addressing the needs of most users. You can easily pan stereo tracks, solo and mute tracks, and adjust levels with a minimum of effort – all in real-time. Having to shift faders with the mouse, it isn’t possible to mix several tracks at a time, as with a true hands-on mixer. That said, the capabilities are a big step forward from FCP3, where the only way to mix was through rubber-banding in the Timeline.
By pressing the Record Audio Keyframes button, each movement to the faders is recorded into the Timeline as separate keyframes that can then be manipulated individually. Once you’re used this mixer, you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it. One criticism: there’s no EQuing capability on the mixer. Some would argue it isn’t necessary; it can all be done through audio filters. But I want adjustments to highs, mids and lows in front of me, just like on a real mixer. Maybe Final Cut Pro 5 will provide this, or perhaps a third-party company will build a FireWire mixer that plugs straight into the Mac.
Apple could have easily upgraded FCP4 with all the features described above, and left it at that. But they chose to go one step further. Also included are Compressor, LiveType, Soundtrack, and Cinema Tools. Each of these functions as a separate application. While I would have preferred these to be integrated into a single program, doing so would have made FCP4 one of the most complicated programs on the planet. It is perhaps more manageable to keep them separate and therefore forcing the user to concentrate on the immediate task at hand.
I found LiveType slightly daunting at first. I like to play and find my way around a program by instinct. In the case of LiveType, I had to look at the book. To my surprise, I found this to be an incredibly sophisticated and customizable program that provides one with an extremely powerful text-manipulation facility. The interface is similar to Final Cut Pro in many regards: a familiar timeline fills the bottom portion of the frame, while a Browser and Canvas sit at the top. A property inspector provides a fourth window.
Operationally, the basics of LiveType aren’t difficult once you understand the required workflow. The clip or sequence that you wish to add text to must first be exported from Final Cut Pro, and then imported into LiveType. The text is created, positioned over the video, and then manipulated. The tools offered are quite staggering. You choose the font, colour, attributes and animated moves from an effects panel. Timing of effects is then set. Background textures and objects can be selected from an extensive library. The result then needs to be rendered, saved, and imported into Final Cut Pro to be integrated into your final movie.
I found Soundtrack more intuitive to work with. After only an hour or two at the controls, I was able to produce music that was equal to or better than much of the stock music I have used in the past. Often what is required for a film production is a backing track that sits largely unnoticed, while the picture content, narration and dialogue tell the story. Soundtrack is perfect for achieving this result. Musical loops are ordered in the form of blocks to create a subtle or bland backing track, and particular musical instruments can then be added at a precise moment to lift the musical score to suit the visuals. Soundtrack is easy to use and, like LiveType, the interface is similar in many ways to Final Cut Pro. A Browser is home to all the elements needed to build your musical score, and a timeline lets you order musical loops, sound effects and snippets of music. Providing everything from bagpipes to bongos, this is an excellent way to quickly set a mood or feel when the budget doesn’t allow for a team of session musicians.
The new features included with Final Cut Pro 4, particularly RT Extreme, the Audio Mixer, and the ability to remap the keyboard, make this application a must-have upgrade for professionals producing video productions to tight deadlines.
Add LiveType, Soundtrack, Compressor and Cinema Tools, and you have a complete post-facility that gives you the power of an editing system, audio mixing room, graphic suite, and compression facility all in one box.
Other applications may offer some of these features, but none offer them all at such an affordable price. Since its release, Final Cut Pro has redefined the post-production world for professionals, independent producers, and low-budget filmmakers
I predict that it’s heading for domination in a market where the boundaries between high-end and low-end systems are rapidly blurring.