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.
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.
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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