Review: Final Cut Server 1.1
At a Glance
Apple’s long-awaited Final Cut Server 1.1 is a complex and powerful tool for Final Cut Pro ( ) users who have advanced requirements for organizing large amounts of footage, working with multiple editors and/or artists, or needing to automate certain production steps.
Final Cut Server is a client-server-based workflow tool that can potentially help you in three ways: in cataloging and searching assets, especially video-based assets; with version control through check-in and check-out capabilities and approval; and with automation capabilities to convert, copy, and execute scripts.
You can run the server side of Final Cut Server with a variety of hardware, from a high-end Xserve ( ) to a Mac Pro ( ). From the main interface, you can see thumbnails, double-click to see small H.264 previews, see all the shot metadata, and drag a shot or group of shots directly into Final Cut Pro—very slick. The interface is intuitive and most features are pretty obvious and user-friendly. The software never crashed during my testing, and the documentation is up to Apple’s usual high standards. I was not able to evaluate setup and installation because Apple provided a system that was preconfigured and had the software installed.
Catalog and search
Final Cut Server has powerful, flexible, and easy-to-use catalog and searching capabilities. This is useful when you have hundreds or thousands of clips for multiple projects that pull video from the same collection of footage, or one massive project for which you need better searching capabilities than those in Final Cut Pro.
The way Final Cut Server catalogs files, and the ease with which you can create detailed, customized, savable searches are major selling points. These will be the most readily usable features for most users.
Unlike other asset-management systems I’ve used that were aimed at Web or print production, Final Cut Server does not copy your footage or other assets and store them in a separate catalog file or database. Instead, it updates a catalog when new files are placed in folders it has been told to “watch” (more on that later). This allows you to organize your assets in exactly the way they are already working for you.
When assets are added to the catalog, either manually or via the folder-watching feature, the program will generate still and video thumbnails of the clips, and gather metadata (information about your assets) such as the shot name and any logging notes you made, all of which you can search later—even if the source files are in separate storage drives not connected to Final Cut Server. This is handy for shops that have lots of FireWire drives filled with footage.
Even better, if you’ve ever used the smart search feature in the Finder, you’ll feel right at home in Final Cut Server—you can build searches from multiple criteria, such as all footage captured on a certain date with the word Montana in the logging notes. It’ll automatically update if you copy a new file into the folder that fits those criteria. You can even drag those clips straight into Final Cut Pro from the Final Cut Server interface.
The downside is that Final Cut Server doesn’t let you search all of the metadata you’ve captured by default. Things like the codec used, the pixel dimensions of the footage, and other useful information is cataloged but not searchable in the standard configuration. Both Final Cut Pro and the Finder have additional search criteria not readily available by default in Final Cut Server—a major omission. I spent an hour going over the documentation to figure out how to add the above as searchable criteria in the main interface, and I only partially succeeded (codec, not pixel size).
Search speed is snappy (even if cataloging and thumbnail building isn’t), so Final Cut Server is sufficiently responsive when you’re trying to sift through thousands of files.
Version control and reviewing
Version control consists of two things: keeping track of multiple versions of the same project file over time, and allowing you to revert to older ones; and checking-in and checking-out capabilities. For projects that require more than one editor or artist, versioning is an automated way to make sure only one person at a time works on a file.
While Final Cut Pro lets you create an Auto Save Vault (which automatically saves a copy of your project at specified intervals), every time you check out a project file from Final Cut Server, two things happen—a copy is made of the Final Cut Pro project, and the file shows up as locked in Final Cut Server—telling the team that you are the only one allowed to make changes at the moment. This prevents others from accidentally overwriting your changes—a common risk in multiuser environments.
When you check the project back in, Final Cut Server automatically saves it as a different version, even if it still has the same file name. This allows you to find and examine the version you created in the past. Checking in and checking out require more discipline from editors and artists but guarantees that you can roll back to prior versions quickly, easily, and reliably. Think of it as a more carefully nuanced version of Time Machine for your files that are associated with Final Cut Pro.
Final Cut Server can also copy all of the necessary assets for a project to a given location when you check out that project—great for taking a FireWire drive with the project to work on elsewhere—and can even create edit proxies (compressed versions of the source—smaller and easier to move around). When you’re done, check the Final Cut Pro project back in, and safely delete the copy Final Cut Server made of the media—the source footage is safely where it started.
Another significant feature is the approval chain—Final Cut Server lets you indicate whether a project has been or is ready to be reviewed, or whether it was approved or rejected at any step in the production. This can be tied into the program’s automation features to do useful things like copy a file to a location, convert it to a deliverable format, post it to a Web site for approval, and more.
One of the big selling points of Final Cut Server is automation—the program’s ability to complete tasks for you automatically and unattended. This was the feature I was most eagerly anticipating—as I do a lot of file-based conversions, waiting for Step 3 to finish so I can get on with Step 4 of my process.
Final Cut Server can perform automated tasks by watching folders—if new files are placed in a folder you’ve told the program to watch, Final Cut Server can start an automated process, which can be something like running files through Apple’s Compressor to convert them to a more useful format, or to multiple formats. Or perhaps you have a finished edit, and you want MPEG-2 files to burn to a DVD, or maybe convert H.264 files for the Web to three different sizes.
Since Final Cut Server uses Compressor for media conversion, you can set up a Compressor cluster (a group of machines working together to convert files faster).
You can also create scripts for complex operations, like publishing content to a custom Web page and having a client provide feedback via the Web back to Final Cut Server. The catch is, many of the advanced capabilities are contingent on custom scripting. You can use Ruby scripts, Automator scripts, and others, but it is up to you to provide or build them. That is a huge barrier for most users, and significantly limits the usefulness of the product for nonscripters if the application doesn’t already do what you want it to do.
Final Cut Server is great for consultants and developers—the package is inexpensive for enterprise-level software, but to really get the most out of it, you could easily spend more on the custom integration work than on the software. Apple should provide a rich library of well-documented scripts for users as part of the shipping software. I found one script available on the Apple Web site. I found this script to be a useful starting place and I wish there were more to choose from. Apple says there will be more in the future.
Macworld’s buying advice
If you are comfortable with databases and scripting, you can create some amazingly powerful and useful workflows with Final Cut Server 1.1. If you are diligent about entering useful metadata while logging footage, you’ll have strong abilities to quickly sift through large amounts of footage and quickly find what you need, especially if you don’t want all your media sitting in a single Final Cut Pro project. If you have projects that need multiple editors and artists—such as a feature film or TV show—the program’s version-control, check-in and check-out, and review capabilities are incredibly useful.
On the other hand, if you don’t have large editorial projects or multieditor projects, don’t have the time or interest required for entering a lot of metadata, or aren’t technically inclined or lack strong IT support, Final Cut Server may not have a lot to offer you.
While I’ve been eagerly anticipating Final Cut Server for a long time, now that it is here, I view it as a decent version 1.x product that does many useful things. For environments where even moderate amounts of data are being handled, Final Cut Server’s capabilities for asset and job tracking, as well as automated conversions, can be immediately useful. However, I’ll only recommend it to clients who have the technical chops to take advantage of its advanced features if it doesn’t do what they need right out of the box.
[Mike Curtis runs HD for Indies, a consultancy and Web site focused on digital workflow solutions for high-quality content creation using high definition technology.]