Tools of the TradeTaking Final Cut Pro For A Test Drive

Video professionals tempted by new gear always face the bean-counting dilemma: Do the benefits justify the cost? From the network level to the independent shop, it's a question that can't be avoided. Users of Apple's video editing software confronted this quandary with the recent introduction of Final Cut Pro 3 (FCP 3). The newest incarnation of the software brings a slew of new features and enhancements plus support for the company's new UNIX-based operating system, OS X.

Chief among the incentives for upgrading to FCP 3 is the ability to incorporate many realtime transition effects without rendering. But, as always, there's a catch. The minimum requirement to access the effects is a Power Mac G4 with a processor speed of at least 500 MHz. That leaves out just about everyone with a Power Mac G4 over 18 months old, including yours truly, owner of a G4/450, circa 2000.

This problem was solved by Apple's hardware loan program for reviewers, which let me borrow a Power Mac G4 with dual 800-MHz processors and a 17-inch Studio Display LCD monitor. This setup allowed me to make real-world comparisons, running the same operations on my personal machine as on the dual-processor Mac. I would also be able to compare how my older machine handled FCP 3 under OS 9 versus OS X.

Another real-world comparison was made possible by the side-by-side machines: Discreet's Cleaner 5, which is widely used to prepare rich media for streaming delivery. Would two processors show a real benefit? Rendering with Cleaner 5 is extremely processor-intensive, so any notable reduction in the time required to prep a file for streaming could be a significant argument for a machine upgrade. I could have used Apple's tutorial files as review material, but I chose to use DV footage shot with my Canon XL1. The event was a preview from summer 2001 of Ford's new Thunderbird. Full of saturated colors and blinding reflections off T-birds old and new, the footage offered plenty of opportunities to test some of FCP's new features. Using FCP's log and capture feature, the DV footage easily transferred via FireWire to the dual-processor (DP) Mac. FCP's interface is virtually unchanged from earlier versions, and users familiar with the software will feel at home using OS X. The same files can be accessed and saved under OS 9 or OS X, so it's possible to move back and forth without penalty. The only major hurdle lies in getting comfortable with how and where files are savedÑa function of OS X, not FCP.

I have a dual-monitor setup on my personal machine and use both 17-inch monitors to the fullest when editing with FCP. I anticipated feeling cramped on the 17-inch Studio Display, but I found there was plenty of room to work thanks to the brilliant resolution of the LCD. It made my two Trinitron monitors look dull and stodgy.

I made a number of quick cuts to build a 90-second T-bird video. My son's collection of MP3s provided a couple of appropriate 1960s car tunes for the audio track. I then copied the digital files to my older G4. My plan was to execute an operation on the DP Mac and then compare performance doing the same routine on the older machine, also running OS X.

Naturally, the realtime effects available on a fast, current Power Mac save time. Five seconds here, 10 seconds there quickly add up. But only a handful of the effects in FCP 3 are available for realtime preview. For the others, does a dual processor machine make a decided difference?

For one test, I changed the opacity at the start of clip. The video would begin ghosted back to about 30 percent and scale up to 100 percent luminance. Stopwatch in hand, I started rendering on my G4/450; 59 seconds later it was done. The same operation on the DP/800 Mac took just 32.5 seconds. I chose a QuickTime effect for another edit. The "Explode" transition took nearly 22 seconds to render on the G4/450. Elapsed time on the DP/800 was 7.2 secondsÑthree times as fast.

The advantages of more processing power were just as apparent using Cleaner 5. I used the same parameters on both machines, creating a 320 x 240-pixel video to stream in the three dominant formats: QuickTime, Real, and Windows Media.

For the QuickTime format, I asked Cleaner 5 to prepare files for broadband as well as 56-k streaming. My G4/450 churned away for 10 minutes and 28 seconds to complete the task. The same operation on the DP/800 took four minutes and 23 seconds.

Preparing a file to stream in Real format took my machine four minutes and 40 seconds. The loaner Mac completed the job in two minutes and 24 seconds.

The pattern repeated itself in preparing Windows Media files. The job took three minutes and 32 seconds on the G4/450. Elapsed time was two minutes and eight seconds on the DP machine.

In a profession that lives and dies by deadlines, there's no doubt that late-model machines offer a significant advantage for Power Mac users. In preparing streaming media, my productivity doubled when using the newer machine. Also note that a dual processor 1-GHz Power Mac has superceded the DP/800-MHz machine tested here. It surely would shave off even more time when running Cleaner 5.

FCP's new features include color correction filters that I put to good use in my T-bird video. A familiar eyedropper tool let me sample a share of red and easily match one clip to another. Using an onscreen trackball interface, I quickly shooed away a yellowish cast from the white hardtop of a 1956 T-bird. These professional-level enhancements bring amazing new power to an already impressive application.

Another new feature identifies portions of a clip that are too "hot" and outside "broadcast safe" limits. My footage, shot on a bright summer day with lots of chrome reflections, had plenty of hot spots. FCP 3 found them, clip by clip, and pulled them back into range with a single click.

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