In Hollywood, when a studio has a hit, it quickly releases a sequel. Apple has fittingly adopted this strategy for Final Cut Pro, its professional video-editing software. Within nine months of shipping Final Cut Pro 2, Apple delivered version 3, an impressive update that adds real-time effects, new color-correction and -measurement tools, and expanded editing features.
Perhaps most significant, Final Cut Pro 3 is Mac OS X native–although OS X introduces important compatibility and workflow issues you’ll need to consider before switching. Final Cut Pro 3 also has some minor bugs, but it should prove to be as big a hit as its predecessors.
Editing Under Aqua
Final Cut Pro 3 looks and works nearly identically to earlier versions. Apple has wisely resisted the urge to tinker with a successful user interface that thousands of video pros have mastered. Running on Mac OS X, Final Cut Pro’s interface looks restrained and muted compared to that of many OS X programs. This is critical for professional video work, where rainbow-colored toolbar icons and animated gewgaws would become visually fatiguing.
We used Final Cut Pro 3 to edit a 90-minute training DVD, running the program almost exclusively on Mac OS X, with excellent results. Final Cut Pro unexpectedly quit a couple of times, but we were always able to relaunch the program and continue without having to reboot.
We did encounter a couple of glitches in Final Cut Pro while it was running in OS X. For example, it would occasionally display video incorrectly if the monitor had gone to sleep due to inactivity–quitting and relaunching the program fixed this. Other users have reported problems with batch-capturing video while running Final Cut Pro 3 in OS X, but we didn’t have any trouble.
To X, or Not to X
Final Cut Pro 3 also runs in Mac OS 9 (specifically, OS 9.2.2). And there are reasons why you might want to stick with the older OS, at least for a while. Final Cut Pro can use many filters and effects plug-ins written for Adobe After Effects, but third-party vendors will need to rewrite plug-ins to run in Final Cut Pro 3 in OS X. If your projects depend on an After Effects plug-in that hasn’t been updated for OS X, you’ll need to run Final Cut Pro 3 in OS 9. This also applies to video capture cards whose driver software hasn’t yet been updated for OS X.
Editing teams who collaborate on projects might also want to approach OS X with caution. Mac OS X’s multiuser design introduces new workflow issues–in some circumstances, you have to futz with OS X privileges settings in order for each member of a team to be able to access a file or folder. Learning how to do this isn’t difficult, but it isn’t something you’ll want to do in the middle of a project.
Fortunately, one issue that won’t affect your OS decision is performance: Final Cut Pro is just as fast and responsive in OS X as it is in OS 9.
Effects Get (Kind of) Real
For many users, the best part of Final Cut Pro 3 is its ability to display many common video transitions and effects immediately, without the need for rendering. For example, you can add a cross-dissolve between two clips and see it right away–there’s no need to choose the Render command and twiddle your thumbs.
When it comes to transitions, Final Cut Pro 3 provides real-time display of cross-dissolves, fades, irises, and several flavors of wipes. A few filters also work in real time, as do some motion effects. You can also combine real-time effects, although on slower G4 systems Final Cut Pro may be unable to render them in real-time. It goes without saying that dual-processor G4 systems deliver the best real-time performance.
But there are some strings attached. For starters, Apple recommends you have a beefy Mac: a 500MHz or faster G4 with at least 384MB of memory, or, for mobile editing, a 667MHz Titanium PowerBook G4 with the same amount of RAM. What’s more, Final Cut Pro’s real-time mode is disabled if you configure the program to display video through a connected FireWire device–a common method of working. Nor can Final Cut Pro 3 perform real-time operations using content stored in formats other than DV or OfflineRT. And finally, in all circumstances, you must still render all effects and transitions before outputting your project to tape.
Final Cut Pro’s real-time mode isn’t quite as real as many editors might like. Still, anything that reduces the need for rendering during the editing process is welcome–and editors who need more robust real-time operation can turn to third-party cards such as the Matrox RTMac. (As of this writing, however, the RTMac was not compatible with Final Cut Pro 3 running in OS X, and Matrox had not announced when OS X drivers would be available.)
Two new features help ensure your video is broadcast-legal–that its colors and brightness are within industry guidelines. With the new range-checking commands, you can have Final Cut Pro display “zebra stripes” on areas of an image that exceed broadcast-safe values. If a scene is outside legal limits, you can quickly correct it using the new Broadcast Safe filter.
For more advanced color tasks, such as removing the greenish tint of fluorescent lighting, there are new color filters and monitoring tools. A new Tool Bench window displays several kinds of video scopes–useful for analyzing the color and brightness of a clip. New color-correction filters provide exceptional control over color balance and brightness. The new Color Corrector 3-Way filter even works in real time on Macs meeting Final Cut Pro’s real-time requirements.
New Ways to Work
The rest of Final Cut Pro 3’s enhancements are a grab bag of useful additions. A new storage format, called OfflineRT, enables you to store roughly 40 minutes of video per gigabyte–about nine times the normal amount of DV footage–for editing and previewing. OfflineRT is a refined version of a technique that experienced Final Cut Pro editors have been using for some time. It’s particularly well suited to working on the road: you can use the OfflineRT format to edit a project on your PowerBook, then create its full-resolution version when you return to the studio.
With the slick new Autosave Vault, you can easily revert to a previous version of a project. And not just one version–Final Cut Pro makes a backup of your project every 30 minutes and maintains a list of 40 backups. You can experiment with abandon, safe in the knowledge that previous versions are a couple of clicks away.
Final Cut Pro includes a terrific new text generator–Boris Calligraphy, from Boris FX. Final Cut Pro 2 included a Boris-based titler, too, but Calligraphy is more tightly integrated into Final Cut Pro 3 and has far more features, including 3-D animation. For previewing animated titles and composites, there’s a new QuickView window, which displays RAM-based previews.
Surveying the Competition
Final Cut Pro has no real competition on the Mac. Adobe Premiere is a fine program, but its capabilities pale in comparison, and it’s not yet OS X native.
Competition could be on the horizon, however. This summer, Avid Technology plans to ship version 3 of its Avid Xpress DV software, which has been available for Windows for some time. A high-end package, Avid Xpress DV will go head-to-head with Final Cut Pro. It will also cost $1,699–nearly twice what Final Cut Pro costs.
When Xpress DV ships for the Mac, Final Cut Pro may well have serious competition–assuming Avid will produce a program that’s as fast, as reliable, and as well integrated into Mac OS as Final Cut Pro is, and assuming Apple won’t leapfrog ahead with yet another Final Cut Pro sequel. Those are big assumptions, and we’ll have to wait and see.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Final Cut Pro 3’s real-time effects features streamline the editing workflow, even if they do have limitations. The program also packs the most complete array of color-monitoring and color-correction tools available in a software-only video-editing package. And Apple’s wise decision to retain OS 9 compatibility gives video pros more time to transition to Mac OS X. Final Cut Pro 3 is a first-rate sequel, and the only choice for day-in and day-out video production.