Apple has successfully covered the extreme ends of the video-editing market: iMovie introduces novices to the world of nonlinear editing, while Final Cut Pro caters to professionals whose dreams are neatly marked with In and Out edit points. Now Apple is offering Final Cut Express, an intermediate application designed for digital-video editors who don’t need all the sprockets in Final Cut Pro (and who’d rather pay $300 than $1,000) and for budget-minded iMovie users looking for more-advanced features. Final Cut Express’s mission is to offer powerful editing and compositing tools while simplifying the editing process for novices — all without undercutting sales of Final Cut Pro. Apple is also no doubt trying to outmaneuver Adobe’s $550 Premiere 6.5 and Avid’s downloadable Avid Free DV package (due out in mid-2003). It’s quite a balancing act.
Chip off the Old Block
Although Apple built Final Cut Express with Final Cut Pro 3’s exoskeleton, we were surprised at just how many of the high-end program’s features showed up in Express. Expect an initially tough learning curve if you’re not familiar with how Final Cut approaches editing.
You can get a feel for the process by building movies in iMovie, but you need to grasp the Final Cut method to really take advantage of what Express can do. In iMovie, there’s one way to do everything. In Final Cut Express, there are three ways to do everything, and that’s wonderful — once you’ve learned the program. Final Cut Express ships with a training DVD but no printed manual — just a 750-page PDF file on the application disc.
Final Cut Almost-Pro
To the casual observer, it’s hard to differentiate Final Cut Express and Final Cut Pro (although Express runs only in OS X 10.2 or later). They share the same main windows — the Browser, for organizing clips; the Timeline, for assembling sequences; the Viewer, for previewing and editing clips; and the Canvas, for playing back sequences. You can work with as many as 99 video and audio tracks simultaneously (versus iMovie’s one video and two audio tracks), so you can composite multiple layers easily. If you have a relatively recent G4, you can preview many transitions and effects in real time without additional hardware.
Final Cut Express even comes equipped with the color-correction tool from Final Cut Pro, albeit without some of its advanced components, such as video scopes or the Range Check feature. And Final Cut Express has the same impressive audio-editing and voice-over tools as Final Cut Pro, giving you much more audio control than iMovie (even with the improvements in iMovie 3).
More important — and unlike iMovie — Final Cut Express offers completely nondestructive editing. You can define a section of a clip using In and Out points, rather than chopping, cropping, and slicing iMovie clips like so many onions.
So which Final Cut Pro features wound up on the cutting-room floor? Primarily, Final Cut Express has been simplified to handle only DV-format video.
It doesn’t include some pro-level features, such as high-definition (HD) or 24-fps (frames-per-second) input, support for edit decision lists (EDLs), OfflineRT, serial-device control, or OMF audio export. Also absent from Express are advanced color correction, support for Adobe After Effects plug-ins, some keyframing features, and most logging and batch-capture and -export capabilities.
Final Cut Express suffers somewhat because it uses the recut and abbreviated Final Cut Pro feature set. For example, the lack of logging and batch processing makes the capture process unnecessarily complicated: you can set In and Out points to define a clip, but then you have to capture that clip to disk before moving on to the next one. We anticipate that most people will be tempted to use the Capture Now button, as they do iMovie’s Import button, and to then enable DV Start/Stop Detection to mark scene breaks in the footage. These users could find themselves running out of disk space faster than they expect to, because Final Cut Express doesn’t trim unused footage from clips when you recapture a project.
Final Cut Express sometimes feels hastily assembled, and we ran into a few snags. For example, the program’s AutoSave Vault feature can perform incremental backups, but the Restore Project feature sometimes states that no AutoSave files are available, and there is no on-screen help feature to bail out the novice user.
If you’ve been working in iMovie and want to step up to Final Cut Express, you’re partly in luck. Express will open iMovie 3 projects, but in doing so, you’ll lose transitions, titles, sound effects, and custom audio levels. A Final Cut Pro user can open Final Cut Express projects and have full Final Cut Pro capabilities; however, you cannot open a Final Cut Pro project in Final Cut Express.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Learning to use Final Cut Express will take some time and effort, and you’ll definitely need to reprogram the editing section of your brain if you’re accustomed to working with iMovie. However, if you’re looking to step up to professional-level video editing and if you don’t require all of Final Cut Pro’s advanced capabilities, Final Cut Express will serve you well.