When X Doesn’t Mark the Spot

The Rise and Fall of Final Cut Pro ☛

Apple have just released the ground-up redesign of their editing software Final Cut Pro. According to the press, the response from the editing community to FCP X has been unanimous – we think it’s a joke. The derision is so widespread that US talk-show host Conan O’Brien included a skit about the new system on his nationally syndicated show.

However, I don’t think the press have quite understood the genuine sense of betrayal the new software has created. To understand this anger you need to know how we got here. Let me take you back through the mists of time to the dying days of the 20th century.

1998: Two mighty warriors battle it out for domination of the editing software market – the corporate giant Avid and, playing David to their Goliath, the plucky British underdog Lightworks. No one noticed the arrival of the real pip-squeak on the scene: Final Cut. Lightworks gradually buckled under the dominance of the mighty Avid; it looked like the corporation was going to own professional video editing, and for a few years they more or less did. But gradually the name Final Cut started to be bandied about the corridors of post-production houses, generally in tones of mild contempt. Avid editors found it fiddly to use and it didn’t do half the things you’d want a professional system to do, especially when it came to sending the cut to sound editors and neg cutters. FCP was the preserve of students and short filmmakers.

Cold Mountain: the epic tale of Avid v. FCP

2002: Editor-guru Walter Murch (he cut Apocalypse Now! dontcha know) decided to cut Anthony Minghella’s civil war epic Cold Mountain on Final Cut Pro. He had platinum-plated technical support: anything he wanted the system to do, he just had to pick up the phone and a SWAT team of dedicated software designers would make it happen, double quicktime. The movie was only a moderate success. Murch, however, was nominated for an Oscar, making the film a turning point for FCP – if a Hollywood epic with CGI and all that could be cut on little old Final Cut then it had finally earned the ‘Pro’ in its name. Indy filmmakers, who had only been using FCP up to this point because it was what they knew and all they could afford, were overjoyed and put behind them any thought of doing an Avid training course. Very soon being a maverick filmmaker without a copy of FCP was like being a 60’s peace campaigner without a Dylan album.

Gradually the mainstream industry drifted in the direction of FCP, although still more for lower budget films. The film students whose colleges had taught them to cut on Final Cut were filtering into the business and guess what system they felt more comfortable using? Many of the established editors who’d begrudgingly retrained from film to Avid less than 10 years earlier began checking out ‘Final Cut for Beginners’ courses.

2007: The Red digital camera arrived. Apple took a gamble and backed the cumbersome, but achingly hip, new piece of kit. They even got an exclusive deal whereby the Red only worked with FCP for a time. Suddenly Final Cut was doing things that an Avid couldn’t do. Goliath soon caught up, but FCP’s reputation for adapting to new technology was assured. In the States, indy darlings Steven Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers gave it a big thumbs up. Even the BBC threw out all its Avids and took Apple’s system to its bosom. After a grueling journey, Final Cut Pro had arrived.

That takes us up to just over a week ago when FCP X hit the streets. Gone were many of the features that had been so lovingly designed for Walter Murch: the new version doesn’t even do the most basic lists that allow the editor to send their cut to a sound designer, neg cutter and online editor. Kirk Baxter, who cut The Social Network on FCP, has declared that it wouldn’t be possible to cut another film for David Fincher on the new system. Inexplicably Final Cut has abandoned its ‘Pro’ and with it all the filmmakers who championed it for so long. The companies that invested so heavily have been left high and dry. And no one’s quite sure why.

Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg) designs Facesmash using FCP

Late last week rumours spread that Apple would get us to pay for all our professional features in the form of extra plug-ins; had this all been a cynical business plan? Apple’s decision to waive their ‘no returns’ policy and offer refunds to angry editors suggests that they had no idea there would be such a backlash. So what is Apple’s strategy?

One former Apple employee suggests that the dumbing down of FCP is an act of pure cynicism: Apple don’t care about the Pro market. However, Apple should be smart enough to know that prosumers will buy a piece of kit purely because it’s been endorsed by professionals. They’ve got iMovie for the amateurs, so why abandon the professional market?

It’s possible it may have been that Apple leapt ahead too far with a trend that started with the release of Final Cut Studio in 2006. This was when they decided to box FCP in with Soundtrack, Color and other finishing programs. Many editors welcomed the additional bits of kit, but others were skeptical and for good reason. The implication was that an editor was now a sound editor, online editor, grader and DVD designer. Producers soon caught on, and skills that had never previously been expected of editors were suddenly supposed to come in our tool-box of talents. If you own software that can grade a feature film, why can’t you use it? Well, such a job has an art and science of its own and is about much more than learning the buttons.

Apple’s assumption that the filmmaker’s skillset would effortlessly expand to embrace all the capabilities of the software has been taken to its logical conclusion in the new release. With the removal of the option of sending your finished cut to sound editors, graders and the like, you have to do everything yourself – and we’re not quite ready for that. In fact many of us just don’t want that at all. I know of few editors who are happy to embrace the job of sound editing with which Apple has inadvertently presented them.

What happens next will be fascinating to see. Will Apple withdraw FCP X and re-release, or will they just flood the App Store with hastily produced plugins? Will Avid manage to capitalize on Apple’s misstep and regain its decisive lead? Will Lightworks make a comeback, now it’s gone open source? One thing’s for certain – Apple’s tag line for FCP X, “Everything just changed in post”, has instantly proven true in a way they never imagined.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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12 Responses to “When X Doesn’t Mark the Spot”
  1. Gavin Boyter says:

    There’s actually a petition to reinstate FCP 7! http://news.cnet.com/8301-27076_3-20074841-248/petition-seeks-to-bring-back-old-final-cut-pro/

    Avid should design a windows-based version of MC and snap up the indie/student sector… and I can’t believe I’m backing Goliath over the little guy by saying that.

    • guyducker says:

      I didn’t know about the petition – goes to show.

      Actually Avid Media Composer runs on PC or Mac. Since I put this article up they’ve offered 50% discount for defecting FCP users.

      • Mick Canavan says:

        Adobe Premier also have slashed their prices by 50% to lure disgruntled FCP users….I am pretty sure that I will now be making this move after editing with FCP for ten years….what idiots Apple are! They had a real loyal fan base and now, what with their very heavy handed approach to patent infringement and abuse of their own customers through court threats etc..I think the Apple is rotten to the core. boom boom

  2. Mat Gough says:

    Brilliantly put Guy.

  3. Cliff says:

    Very interesting – I heard a lot of disappointment about fcpx, but didn’t know why – makes a lot of sense thanks!

  4. Brian Barnes says:

    The Conan O’Brien clip is great, but this is blindingly funny…

    • Robin Hislop says:

      Actually, Walter Murch got almost no support from Apple when he cut Cold Mountain, they were very reluctant to put their name behind it – they didn’t think FCP could handle a feature. He did get a lot of support from an independent consultancy which helped him hack it into usable shape.

      While I think that FC X is missing a lot of features that pros can’t do without at the moment, it seems like v.1.0 of a totally new (and innovative) program to me. The squeals that are resounding at the moment sound a lot like Avid editors when FCP 1.0 was released. I’m gonna wait for 2.0 before passing judgement.

      • guyducker says:

        It’s true that the help “Cold Mountain” received was from DigitalFilm Tree, rather than from Apple, but this wasn’t widely known at the time. The net result was to turn FCP into much more professional kit, a result Apple embraced both in their software development and advertising (even if they did come a little late to the party!)

        Were FCP X a brand new application, I’d agree that expecting a fully spec’d feature cutting program would be foolish. However it bears the name FCP. You can’t blame people for expecting more functionality from version 10 than they got from version 7.

  5. Henry Dobson says:

    Another really interesting and informative article Guy… keep ’em coming!

  6. John J says:

    This is even funnier:

  7. Anuree De Silva says:

    And Apple are so silent. people are assuming that all these 3rd party plug ins will be available “soon” but as I understand it there has been no guarantee what will be available and when. What will it cost us to get back the same functionality we have right now with Fcp 7 and how can you run a business on the hope that your supplier will develop what you need when you need it. I’ve read that some developers have been complaining they don’t have enough information from Apple to produce these plug ins. Some of the posts to the forums have been vitriolic with accusations of “trolls” and “shills” flying around. I’ve recently been doing some teaching and the colleges are all worried as to what to do. Students can no longer buy Fcp 7 and Fcp X is not an industry standard so what can they teach? If they move to another platform that is a major cost implication and students in the middle of their courses face learning a system that is almost obsolete. At the moment I believe Lion will allow you to run Fcp 7, but for how long? We have been waiting for this upgrade for so long and Apple are falling behind the likes of Avid and Adobe Premiere. It must be deeply worrying not just for editors but everyone in the post industry as we are all interdependent on our systems working together.

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  1. […] me give you an example. Earlier this year Apple introduced its new editing system Final Cut Pro X. I wrote about this at the time, but in essence what happened was that growth of demand in the amateur and semi-professional market […]

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