Creative Storytelling in web, iOS, and Film

What Really Went Wrong With Final Cut X

By on Feb 27, 2012 in Blog, Consulting, Film Studio |

I can remember when nobody knew what Final Cut Pro was. In fact, I can remember when Randy Ubillos and Tim Meyers were working to move an unnamed video project from a company called SuperMac to Adobe. Those were really interesting times. One reason was that as software and hardware evolved, the process we then called “desktop video” was taking people by surprise. The idea that video could be edited in a personal computer and then shown on television had many professionals speechless.

Most of you know the story of how Apple came to acquire KeyGrip from Adobe and develop Final Cut Pro into a shipping product. Thru its evolution from version one to version seven, it became a very powerful and cost effective video production tool. For my team, it helped us win countless awards – and absolutely played a role in our creative storytelling. The same story can be shared by literally hundreds of filmmakers, and thousands of others have enjoyed the productivity that Final Cut Pro ( v4 – v7) delivered.

When Final Cut Pro X was shown at NAB in 2011, my wife (and partner) and I were delighted. It looked to have lots of potential. As experienced demo viewers, we also knew to hold our breath prior to making any hard opinions.

If you’re a professional editor, or a student eager to become an editor, you probably know what happened: Apple released Final Cut Pro X and within 48 hours, the “video industry” was exclaiming the end of Apple in the professional market, and thousands of forum posts and comments at the bottom of editorials and reviews sent Apple to the flaming depths below. The comments were harsh, with one individual writing on the publication TechCrunch, “it looks as if they took a beautifully written novel and turned it into a children’s book.”

Many of the concerns were legit, while others were piling on, which unfortunately is typical for people protected by a computer display and keyboard.And while there are all multiple opinions about feature sets, compatibility, Apple’s focus on consumers, ad infinitum, the core problem with Final Cut Pro X comes down to a simple issue: communication. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself…

People using Final Cut Pro are familiar with Apple. They should (and often do) know how Apple (and the late Steve Jobs) would think about solving technical problems. As one example, why has Apple never implemented a Blu Ray player? Answer: Blu Ray has been popular for only a few years, and already, it’s on the way out. Within a short period of time, nearly all media will stream via the Internet. From that perspective, Apple customers understand that Apple will always look not only to the future, but to workable solutions that make life easier for the user.

And this is where Apple ran into a brick wall, headfirst. The process of editing film is more than 100 years old. Until a decade ago, the mechanics of cutting film stock were basically the same as those used during the Great War in 1917. A tried and true process does not die easily.

Apple, SuperMac, Radius, Truevision, Macromedia and Adobe spent millions of dollars asking people to migrate their video projects to personal computers during the 1994 – 2004 time period. During that decade, I traveled thousands of miles on behalf of the above manufacturers, teaching people that it could be done. Their film aspirations were possible if only they would compromise in certain areas. Rendering was and remains the enemy of digital film production.

One of the key issues during that decade and even since then has been the customer asking Apple to support them. “If we’re going to edit a motion picture, we’ll need Final Cut Pro to do this and that…” And initially, Apple listened. That’s why Final Cut Pro evolved. It went from being a “good idea” relative to editing to being a good tool. Knowing a manufacturer supports you is near the top of the emotional “must have” list for anyone in the film and television industry.

And suddenly, about two years ago, Apple appeared to no longer be listening – at least relative to the direction the product Final Cut Pro would take.

This was a time period of opportunity as well. Major studios were using Final Cut Pro. Competitors were losing market share and Apple was poised to move into a class of its own. The big challenge for FCP would be to stay current.

Moving FCP from 32-bit to 64-bit was a huge issue for Apple’s engineers and Randy Ubillos. If Final Cut was to remain competitive in the marketplace, it had to evolve into a new foundation that supported multiple core processors and other new capabilities that are commonplace in today’s personal computers.

But, wait – Apple had already done some of this work. The company’s iMovie product had been drastically changed from a simplified nonlinear editing solution into a newly conceived digital media construction kit as part of iLife 09. The initial reaction to the new iMovie was WHF! – but as people began to use the software, they discovered that it was, for the most part, a new way of thinking about editing, and one that worked well.

Apple didn’t create the new iMovie just because they wanted to be different. The world of video was changing. Fast. Twitter, Facebook, smart phones and the iPad (among other tablets) were changing the way people made and interacted with video. The iMovie solution was a clear example of a new method for creating media quickly and easily by non-professionals.

So, Apple started thinking about how they could transform the way professional editors create movies. You don’t even need to talk to them to know that’s what they were thinking. It’s in their DNA.

The problem is that film editors don’t want to change. They want tools that allow them to work faster – doing what they’re already doing. Faster. The end.

The entire process that many of us struggled through from ’94 until even this past year has been about migrating the editing process forward but based on the time tested formula of time based, multi-track, layered media management. So, to throw all of that out of the window is sacrilege. As such, the reaction to Final Cut Pro X was not only WTF, but FU!

There have been comments made that Apple had actually developed a 64-bit Final Cut Pro Eight product, but it was dumped in favor of the flavor X (say ten, not ex). That would have been interesting, but again, think of Apple as a company and how they think – different.

What cost Apple thousands of users and lost market share was a marketing error. The person making that error isn’t important – put it on the head of the company overall. Naturally, this is just an opinion, but if Apple had continued to organize Apple-sponsored community dialog and interactive collaboration with their users, things would have been substantially different.

Digital SLR cameras are the rage. Independent film production is on the rise. For the first time since the invention of motion pictures, people are open to making movies with new tools, new techniques, and multi-platform delivery expectations.

The people raging against the Apple FCP machine are for the most part in television. They’re in feature film (studio) production. If only Apple had listened a bit more closely to the old pros, and then considered the new pros as an incremental addition to their market. As it turns out, the new pros may be a substitute for many of the old pros, but by default – not because of any attempt to keep them as clients.

It should be noted that competitors Avid and Adobe have relied on the very thing that Apple has missed relative to professional editing: direct customer contact. Both Avid and Adobe have invested heavily in trade show presence, educational events, and reseller-driven presentations.

Think about it: If Apple were to announce a professional editing “event” just prior to or at NAB 2012, would all of the people who slammed them during the past year stay away? Not likely. At the same time, the chances for Apple redirecting attention at this late date are likely nil.

Still, all isn’t lost. Today, NLE solutions are such that it’s probably a good idea to know how to use multiple products. Learning to use Avid or Adobe Premiere is not that big a swing for an experienced FCP 7 user.

We don’t use Final Cut Pro X in our shop. We experiment with it. We like a lot of things about it. We think the latest release and some of the emerging third party solutions out there make it technically much closer to what FCP 7 was, but with all of the nuance and evolution that digital production is bringing to us – like it or not. So, Final Cut Pro X is going to be a pretty fantastic solution, based on the new methods of working with mixed digital media. [ note: see this new REVIEW of Final Cut Pro’s latest release. ]

The problem for many editing professionals is the learning curve. We’re busy. We typically don’t have the time to learn these new tools and this new paradigm. If only we had some time to experiment. And that remains one of the biggest issues moving forward – learning how to use all of these new tools in a manner that permits us to really improve our efficiency. With Premiere 6 and Avid 6 here or nearly so, the process of real change in post will be put on hold for at least another digital generation. And, maybe, for the old pro, that’s a good thing.