Over the years, Final Cut Pro (FCP) has evolved into a workhorse application that handles everything from basic digital video editing to uncompressed HD video processing. While Avid’s Media Composer, FCP’s main competitor, offers more tools at a higher price (and Adobe is readying a new Mac version of Premiere Pro CS3), FCP 6 is an improvement on an already powerful, flexible, affordable, and scalable editing program for a wide range of professional and semiprofessional users.
FCP 6 is part of Final Cut Studio 2, and it can no longer be purchased separately from the suite. It serves as a hub for the other Studio programs: Motion 3, Soundtrack Pro 2, Compressor 3, DVD Studio Pro 4, and the new Color. At first glance, FCP 6 looks identical to the previous version (), but if you look below the surface, you’ll find significant new features—such as the Open Format Timeline, the ProRes 422 codec, and the SmoothCam plug-in—that can substantially speed up and enhance your workflow and help you Get Stuff Done. In terms of bang for the buck, the Final Cut Studio 2 package offers many more features and capabilities than previous versions of the suite.
Open Format Timeline
The most notable new feature in FCP 6 is the Open Format Timeline. In previous versions, you had to choose one frame size, one frame rate, and one codec to process a video sequence—but no longer. If you have a fast enough machine, you can now mix frame sizes, frame rates, and codecs in a sequence. FCP automatically handles frame-size and frame-rate conversion in real time. When I tested this feature with a variety of video formats, the quality wasn’t perfectly smooth—imperfections were caused by the less-than-ideal frame-repeat patterns that make up the difference between 24- and 30-fps video. However, you can use the suite’s new version of Compressor to improve such troublesome shots (though the process may take multiple iterations). This is a vast improvement on the rigid specificity of previous versions, and it saves a lot of time if you need to edit various kinds of clips from different sources.
ProRes 422 codec
Apple’s new ProRes codec comes in two flavors: a 10-bit-per-channel, 145-megabit-per-second version called ProRes 422, and a 10-bit-per-channel, 220-megabit-per-second version called ProResHQ. Each offers several advantages:
Full Raster The codec resolution is the actual size of the format—so the 1920-by-1080 format equals 1920 by 1080 pixels, instead of 1440 or 1280 by 1080 (as with the HDV and DVCPRO HD video formats). Similarly, 720p (nominally 1280 by 720 pixels) is actually 1280 pixels wide, not just 960 (as with the DVCPRO HD format and codec).
10 Bits for ProRes HQ Instead of the 256 colors or shades of gray (and only 8 bits of color depth) you get with most codecs, you get up to 1,024 shades and 10 bits, for much smoother rendered results of color correction and other image manipulation.
High Quality Image quality is very well preserved after you apply effects, and there are few compression artifacts, even after multiple generations of recompression. That’s far better than HDV can accomplish.
Greater Speed Because the structure of the codec is less complicated than that of the HDV or XDCAM HD video formats, it is faster at rendering color correction, titles, and cross-dissolves. FCP can optionally render timelines to ProRes instead of to HDV or XDCAM, for faster, better-quality results when you’re working with the Open Format Timeline.
Low Data Rate Despite its high quality, this codec’s data rate is relatively low—145 or 220 megabits per second, so it will play back nicely from a single hard drive instead of requiring a large, costly, complex disk array. A fast Mac is required though, especially for HD.
SmoothCam, a stabilization plug-in, leverages Shake’s () powerful Optical Flow technology. You use this FCP plug-in to stabilize shots, as well as to smooth jerky camera motion in pans and tracking shots where straightforward software stabilization doesn’t work. This feature, too, has some rough edges. For example, HDV is especially slow to render because SmoothCam always renders the entire shot, regardless of how much of it is actually used in the timeline (there is an awkward workaround). But it’s accessible in a way that Shake’s more sophisticated and complex features are not.
With DVDs, HD DVDs, and home theaters becoming more popular, the addition of surround-sound playback support (5.1 audio channels) to FCP is significant. You can use Soundtrack Pro 2 to do audio mixing and panning for 5.1 surround sound, and then carry the resulting audio into FCP. However, you’ll need additional hardware (costing anywhere from $300 to $2,000) to get those six audio channels out to speakers—the Mac’s built-in digital audio optical port won’t suffice.
FCP’s tight integration with the other suite applications, either via live updates or synchronization, is a major time-saver. Using the Send To menu, you can send clips or sequences to Motion, Soundtrack Pro, and Shake (which isn’t included in the suite), as well as the impressive new Color application. Motion projects will update in real time in FCP, and you can synchronize audio changes between Soundtrack Pro and FCP. Color projects can also be updated to include changes from FCP. And you can export directly to Compressor without having to render a separate file first.
Better than before
Apple has also made a slew of improvements and fixes to existing features: FCP 6 is better, easier to use, and faster than previous versions. For example, the Media Manager (which manages media files for conversion to other formats) and Cinema Tools (which works with converted film material) have been improved. In addition, Easy Setups, which define the kind of video format you’re preparing to capture or edit, have been simplified; flexible external monitoring options and many new audio and video plug-ins have been added; P2 Import (for the popular HVX200 and other Panasonic cameras) has been improved and integrated into the new Log & Transfer interface, for a more consistent user experience with P2 and future formats; and there is support for more video formats.
What you don’t get, however, is AVCHD (Advanced Video Codec High Definition) support. The new AVCHD format, which is growing in popularity for new consumer camcorders, is not yet supported in Final Cut Pro 6. However, Apple recently demonstrated transcoding AVCHD to the ProRes codec (similar to the way HDV currently can be captured and transcoded on-the-fly to the Apple Intermediate Codec) at the recent National Association of Broadcasters conference.
Transcoding to ProRes will dramatically increase the storage requirements over native AVCHD, but will generate high quality results with reasonable performance on fast enough machines. Final Cut Pro 6 also does not properly support Sony’s 24 frames-per-second HDV format in the V1U camera or JVC’s 60 frames-per-second HDV format over FireWire.
FCP 6 always felt solid and stable: in several days of testing on five machines, I never experienced a crash or lockup. Performance was consistently zippy on dual-G5 and faster Macs, and installation went smoothly. My biggest issue was the time it took to install the full nine-DVD, 55GB suite, and making room on a boot drive on my older G5s in order to do so. The system requirements are moderately steep—you’ll need a somewhat recent machine to run it: at least a 1.25GHz Power Mac G4 with AGP or PCIe graphics for standard-definition video. HD video requires even more CPU, GPU, and RAM.
Apple gets points for including a beefy printed manual for Final Cut Pro 2, as well as fully searchable PDFs. However, Final Cut Pro is the only application in the suite for which there is extensive print documentation.
Macworld’s buying advice
Final Cut Pro 6 is a solid upgrade featuring greater ease of use and enhanced workflow flexibility. For users of previous versions, the decision to upgrade will be a no-brainer, as the new ProRes and Open Format Timeline features alone are worth the price of admission. And when you factor in the new features of the suite’s other tools, especially Color, which was a $25,000 application before Apple acquired the technology, Final Cut Studio is an excellent value. For Mac users considering buying the suite for the first time, Final Cut Studio 2’s speed, flexibility, price, and capabilities put it in a class by itself.
[Mike Curtis runs HD for Indies, a consultancy and Web site focused on high-definition video production, with an emphasis on HD cameras and workflow, as well as postproduction hardware and software.]
EDITOR’S NOTE: A change was made to clarify that the codec’s versions are both 10-bits per channel, not 8-bit and 10-bit, as the Final Cut Pro documentation implies.