10.07.2009 09:05 AM
Apple Final Cut Studio
With little fanfare, Apple simply announced the new Final Cut Studio on their Web site, ending months of speculation in the online communities. Apple had prepped for this moment, however, with ready-made free Ripple Training and Lynda.com tutorials, online documentation (no more paper manuals) and a number of extra downloads.

FEATURES

Enhanced text support is just part of the toolset available in the new Final Cut Studio package.
The new Final Cut Studio (not version 3 or the 2009 edition) contains Final Cut Pro, Motion, Soundtrack Pro, Color, Compressor, DVD Studio Pro, Cinema Tools and Qmaster. Noticeably absent is LiveType, which didn’t make the cut, because Apple is shifting its text animation efforts totally to Motion. If you prefer LiveType, upgrading a previous version of Final Cut Studio won’t overwrite LiveType and you can continue to use it.

The big highlights of this release are Blu-ray support and expansion of the ProRes codec family. Blu-ray support is handled through a new Share function in Final Cut Pro 7 or the Job Action window in Compressor 3.5. These are both essentially the same thing. Blu-ray is just one of the choices, along with DVD, MobileMe, YouTube and others.

If you have a Blu-ray burner, then you can use a simple template in Share or Job Action to create a Blu-ray disc consisting of a single track with chapters. Apple took the bare minimum approach—enough for one-offs to show the client, but not enough to author a disc with several tracks and menus. Adobe Encore is still a better tool for that. In fact, DVD Studio Pro, which would have been the logical choice, was hardly touched and still doesn’t support Blu-ray, even at this small level. It’s received so little attention that I have to question its future.

The ProRes family gained three new codecs: ProRes 422 (Proxy), a lightweight offline editing resolution; ProRes 422 (LT), a broadcast-quality, reduced bandwidth codec; and ProRes 4444, a high-end codec for compositing, which also supports an alpha channel. By rounding out these options, Apple has clearly made ProRes their editing codec of choice in much the same way as Avid has with DNxHD. This gives the Pro Apps team a codec they can control independent of the rest of the myriad QuickTime codecs.

Final Cut Pro 7 received the most new features and, by itself, makes the upgrade worthwhile. It is Intel-only, but you’ll see very little initial difference between it and the previous version. Stability is worth a lot, so it’s also important to note that this version is ready for Snow Leopard (Mac OS 10.6). Initial anecdotal information—from others who have made that jump—is that it’s fine, but with a few issues, such as XDCAM SxS card support. It’s also important to note, however, that FCP7 doesn’t appear to be specifically optimized for Snow Leopard. That will happen down the road.

It’s best to check out the Ripple and Lynda tutorials for more in-depth details of the new features, but the best one for me is the new speed change tools. This finally makes variable speed ramps functional within FCP. You can access this by clicking on the keyframe button at the bottom of the timeline to reveal the speed tick marks. Select a clip and right-mouse-click the keyframe track to open the contextual menu, which includes the change speed option. Once selected, a new menu opens to reveal a number of related parameters, such as speed and velocity interpolation at the beginning and end of the effect.

Final Cut adds native support for Panasonic’s AVC-Intra. Bring in your clips through the Log and Transfer module and Final Cut will ingest the footage. It copies the file, rewraps it with a QuickTime wrapper, but does not transcode. Both the 50 Mbps and 100 Mbps flavors of AVC-I support real-time, multi-stream effects through FCP’s RT Extreme engine.

Other Final Cut Pro 7 improvements might seem minor, but are huge for many editors. The big one for me is that timeline markers finally ripple as you insert or delete clips. This feature can be toggled on and off, based on your needs. There are also a few that were previously available from plug-in suppliers, but not from Apple. For instance, you now have a large Avid-style timecode window. Formerly this required Digital Heaven’s BigTime plug-in, but now it’s native. The same goes for alpha transitions. Final Cut now includes built-in wipes in which a foreground element covers the transition as an A scene wipes to a B scene. The industrial revolution folks did this first with SupaWipe, but now it’s built in. In fact, Apple offers a series of alpha transition effects with companion media that can be downloaded from their online resource page.

If you’re a fan of control surfaces, you’ll be happy to know that Final Cut Studio has now implemented the Euphonix EuCon protocol, in addition to the one for Mackie. Panels like Euphonix’s MC Control and MC Mix could be used before, but under Mackie emulation. Now there’s native control, giving you more of the programmable features these consoles offer.

Motion is one of the few applications within Final Cut Studio that was originally created by Apple engineers and it gets better with each iteration.

New improvements include 3D shadows and reflections, depth-of-field effects and new text tools. The latter picks up and expands upon what was done in LiveType. There is a new Glyph tool that lets you manipulate each individual letter in 3D space. If you install Final Cut Studio and opt to skip the content, don’t do so for Motion. Some of the content enables text behaviors, so by not installing the Motion content, these behaviors won’t appear in the pulldown menu. I also noticed that when working with LiveFonts and the new Glyph tool, I had more control of the characters than I did in LiveType.

Final Cut Studio’s built-in DAW received a number of small but important features, including better Euphonix integration, noise reduction enhancements, direct recording into the Multitake Editor and advanced Time Stretch. The smallest, but most obvious new feature is Voice-Level Match. This will likely see the most use by editors. If you have a number of voice-over clips at differing volume levels, you can now use Lift and Stamp tools to analyze and adjust the volume of one clip relative to the others.

Folks that find Color challenging won’t be happy. It still presents a very un-Mac-like environment. Never-theless, this powerful grading tool has gone through some improvements for better round-tripping between Color and Final Cut Pro and to optimize rendering. The most welcome news is for RED One owners. Color finally breaks Final Cut Pro frame size limitations by supporting native 4K camera raw files from the RED One camera. You can render back to ProRes 4444, but you have to export DPX files for larger frames if you intend to stay at 4K sizes.

As part of the Euphonix support, Color will also support the new MC Color panel. This is a trackball-style colorist’s panel. In addition, Color 1.5 supports the Tangent Devices Wave, so two low-cost controllers have been added to the more expensive models from JL Cooper and Tangent Devices.

IN USE

I ran Final Cut Pro 7 for a few weeks on real projects without any major issues. It appears to be very stable and drives much as earlier versions did.

I tested Compressor’s Job Action feature with my MobileMe account and was pleasantly surprised. I used the presets, let it handle the upload, and a short while later my video was online. The quality was excellent and playback was far smoother than most of the video at popular sites like YouTube and Vimeo. Apple is finally adding professional value to MobileMe. I also burned an AVCHD disc. This is essentially the same thing as a simple Blu-ray, except using standard red laser DVD-R media. Many Blu-ray players, like my Samsung, will play these discs, so it makes one wonder why Blu-ray won in the first place.

SUMMARY

I’ve had very few hiccups in the weeks that I’ve run the new Final Cut Studio. The main issue I’ve hit is gamma handling with legacy codecs, like Photo-JPEG, a favorite for stock footage houses. Using QuickTime Player Pro to convert these to ProRes causes elevated gamma levels in Final Cut Pro 7, but only after a filter was added and the clip rendered. The same clips converted via Compressor were fine. As Apple moves more down the QuickTime X path, I suspect conversion of legacy codecs through QuickTime 7 should be avoided. Use Compressor 3.5 instead.

This is a healthy update with both small and large improvements. I’ve cherry-picked the most notable here, but there are many more. Apple has lowered the base price, and there’s an upgrade for existing users at less than $300. If you already own an Intel Mac Pro or MacBook Pro and make your living using Final Cut Studio, then don’t think twice about moving up.

Oliver Peters is an independent post-production consultant, specializing in editing, color-grading and project management. He is also a contributing editor to Videography and DV magazines. He may be contacted at oliverpeters@oliverpeters.com.



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