TOOLS OF THE TRADERTMac: Realtime Processing In FCP 2.0

Final Cut Pro (FCP), from Apple Computer, has firmly established itself as the digital video editing software that offers the most bang for the buck. For a list price of $999, editors get a feature-rich product whose capabilities rival those of competitors costing 10 times as much (and more).

One early criticism of FCP was its inability to preview realtime effects. The simplest transition required rendering before the effect could be viewed. Render time for a basic dissolve or a layered effect might be just seconds, but in the course of a day of editing, seconds quickly add up. The solution for many FCP editors has been to lay down a series of edits and, when it's time to refill the coffee mug or go to lunch, begin rendering. Experience dictates how long to stay away.

Now comes a product that will boost productivity and trim long lunch hours. RTMac is a PCI card that provides realtime processing of up to three layers and many transition, motion, and opacity effects in FCP. The long-awaited Matrox product debuted last spring along with FCP 2.0. Earlier versions of FCP cannot take advantage of RTMac's benefits. In fact, RTMac's drivers will not install on a Macintosh unless the installer detects the proper version of FCP.

RTMac, which lists for $999, is actually three products in one. In addition to the feature enhancements for FCP, the RTMac PCI card doubles as a video card. Now editors who prefer a dual-monitor setup with their Power Macintosh G4 systems will not have to dedicate a precious PCI slot to drive a second display. The RTMac card handles that chore.

Finally, RTMac is a digitizing device that allows analog source material to be brought into FCP for digital editing. The reverse is also true. A finished FCP project can be exported (printed to videotape) directly from the Macintosh system to a connected VHS, Hi-8, or other analog recorder. Bypassing the step of first laying down a program to DV can be helpful from time to time.

But RTMac also coexists peacefully with any attached Firewire device, such as a camcorder or deck. There's no need to disconnect one device in favor of another when outputting to different media. All that's needed is a change of preferences in FCP before recording a program to tape.

RTMac includes a breakout box that makes linking with the analog world easy. It has inputs and outputs for composite and S-Video, as well as left- and right-channel audio, and is just the right size to sit atop a G4 tower with room to spare.

RTMac installation is a snap. Slip the card into a G4's vacant PCI slot and attach the breakout box cable, which measures a convenient six feet in length. Make sure FCP 2.0 is installed before attempting to install the RTMac drivers.

RTMac requires a single- or multi-processor Power Mac G4 (400 MHz or faster) with an AGP motherboard. Minimum RAM is 256 MB, and Mac OS 9.1 and QuickTime 5 (included with FCP 2.0) are necessary. Mac OS X (pronounced Oh-Es-Ten) isn't supported, because FCP doesn't yet run under the new operating system. It's obvious that Matrox and Apple worked together closely on RTMac and FCP 2.0. The products integrate seamlessly and, once RTMac is installed, it's easy to forget that another device is giving your non-linear editor a significant boost.

Editors used to seeing a red rendering status bar in FCP's timeline will see green become the predominate color. Green means no additional rendering is needed to preview an effect. Yellow in the render status bar indicates that realtime playback is being approximated when an effect is outside RTMac's built-in capabilities. It's important to note that before a program is recorded to tape via FireWire, all effects must be rendered. And RTMac does have limitations. Realtime playback is limited to three layers (such as two video layers and one graphics layer). Some other effects that must be rendered include any motion effect with motion blur applied; any motion effect with a simultaneous iris transition; and including a graphic in Photoshop format with more than two layers.

RTMac and FCP enjoy a stable but sophisticated relationship, so be sure to configure RTMac and FCP's preferences carefully. The wrong check-box setting can lead to annoyances such as no audio on playback or a failure in audio-video synchronization. Follow the set-up guidelines religiously to avoid time-wasting headaches.

That said, RTMac is an impressive, value-packed product that any FCP editor will appreciate.