What IS the Big Deal About FCP?

Recently a blog post from Neil Sadwelkar titled “What’s the big deal about FCP” made the rounds of the post people on Twitter. It’s an evaluation of Final Cut Pro, mainly comparing it to Avid Media Composer. This is obviously nothing new, there are probably hundreds of such blog posts around the net, but this one was a little special simply because of it’s massive wrongness…

Neil doesn’t seem to be approving comments on his blog post, so I thought I’d post my points in response here.

Comparing Avid and FCP will never end – there is no definitive answer. But if you’re going to try, you should at least try to have a good understanding of both. If you want to hear from people who really know how all these beasts work then you should take a look at the writings of Oliver Peters,Scott Simmons and Shane Ross.

To be fair, Neil does begin his post with this statements:

Some of these differences may not apply to the absolutely latest Avid ver 5.0. But for most Avid ABVB, Meridien, or even Adrenaline owners, ver 5 is a huge upgrade. So, for them, these still apply.

But I’m not entirely sure that is fair – we should probably compare, if you will, apples with apples. Many of his points are only relevant for the more recent versions of FCP – comparing it to a 8 year old system (Adrenaline) or even older (ABVB and Meridien) is somewhat unfair. Media Composer 5 is a significant upgrade, but not too massive. To be fair I will try and consider MC4 and MC5 in my responses.

So let’s get on with it then…

Huge format support
Apart from Beta/DigiBeta/DV, FCP can import and edit Red, Canon 5D/7D, XDCamEx, DVCProHD, JVC HDV, P2, NXCam, AVCCam, AVCHD and many more that Avids older than maybe 2009 cannot.

What a great start. In 2010, comparing FCP7 to Media Composer 5, I think Avid has the advantage. With AMA (extended in MC5) you can link directly to all XDCAM media, P2 (DVCPRO-HD and AVC-Intra) and pretty much any Quicktime file (including 5D DSLR footage) and native R3D media! It can also import and transcode AVCHD (which also means NXCAM and AVCCAM).

AMA was introduced in MC4, it included support at that time for all XDCAM and P2 media. Prior to that MC3 had direct file-link support for XDCAM (not EX) and P2 media. In MC3 and 4 there is no native R3D support, but Avid has well documented RED workflows for earlier versions.

Smoke-Flame quality
FCP uses the same Aja Kona hardware that Smoke, Flame and even Lustre use, so the video quality of FCP is identical to Smoke, Flame and Lustre. No offline-online with FCP, both same same.

This is one of my favourites – I actually laughed out loud when I read this. The quality of video is not determined by the hardware that is used to provide the I/O. Flame, Smoke and Lustre are very different systems, they have different strengths. FCP has perfectly acceptable video performance usually, but certainly does have it’s issues. Support for common hardware does not mean equal features or results.

As a note, the offline/online workflow is not a factor of the I/O hardware, it’s a workflow choice. FCP and Avid are both totally capable of online-only usage.

Compositing while editing
Any motion graphics kind of stuff – DVD moves, resize, skew, keyframed moves, crops, rotates etc – can be done while editing. Avid can’t even rotate a frame.

This is completely inaccurate. No only can Avid do all those things natively, many of those effects and moves are actually quite poor quality in FCP – typically this is handled by using Motion instead. Avid can rotate a frame.

Import without convert
FCP uses most file formats without creating new media. Avid needs to import everything and create new media.

This certainly used to be the common cry in the FCP/Avid debate, but has become increasingly inaccurate. Even in Media Composer 3 the workflows for P2 and XDCAM were quicker and easier in Avid than FCP. As more file-based formats have emerged this gap has increased. Final Cut Pro’s strength in file handling is built around Quicktime, which is a fundamental building block of FCP – however Quicktime is not a common format in video acquisition. XDCAM EX is based on the Quicktime-compatible MPEG4 file container, but is still not natively accessible to FCP.

Because of FCP’s core reliance on Quicktime it is virtually impossible for FCP to offer native file-based support for non-Quicktime files. Instead they either need to be re-wrapped or transcoded to another format with the Log and Transfer tool.

Avid’s media management system, on the other hand, used to pose a problem for Avid users. It required that all media by a common format and the file locations be managed by Avid. This meant that import (and transcode) was required for all formats. However that started to change with P2 and then XDCAM support, where Avid was able to index and use native MXF media from outsite it’s standard ‘MediaFiles’ locations (that was introduced in Media Composer Adrenaline 2 I think) – that concept has been grown over time, until MC4 where AMA was introduced as a broad structure for that file-based support. And that been substantially expanded in version 5 with added support for Quicktime and R3D media.

It’s an interesting contrast of FCP and Avid development that as file-formats have increased the ‘Import’ style of workflow with FCP has increased through Log and Transfer, and decreased in Avid with AMA.

Multi resolution
FCP has no project setting as such. You can happily mix HD, SD, PAL, 24, 25, NTSC, YouTube movies, MP3 files, CD audio, BWF audio, all in one project. Even place them in one timeline. Avid needs you to make a project of a fixed setting and prohibits you from importing anything of a different setting.

This is a little bit true. What FCP really has that Avid lacks is a resolution independant workflow. You can create an FCP project with any arbitary resolution. But this can be a big drawback also. Not being as rigid with basic video standards means issues like reversed field order are a lot more common in FCP.

Media Composer is limited to a range of video standard. But in the past few version that has been becoming a lot more flexible. In version 3 (I think) it became possible to switch a project between compatible formats – as part of that automatic resampling is supported, so SD media in an HD timeline will be upscaled to HD cleanly.

In Media Composer 4 that was extended to support mix-and-match across framerates. Any media can the used in any timeline – an SD NTSC clip will play fine, and in realtime, in a 1080i50 timeline. The quality and ease of workflow of Avid’s Mix-and-Match is much better than FCPs.

’24-25 thing’ easy
In PAL-film land the ’24-25 thing’ comes back to bites you from time to time. FCP allows you to interchange from 24 to 25 in a flash – picture and sound.

I’m not totally sure I understand this exactly, but I’m fairly sure Avid has no difficulties in this area. It’s had very solid film/24p workflows since before FCP was even a product.

HD without tax
All FCP systems after about 2004 can do HD. In fact almost all FCP capture cards can do HD from about 2006. So, FCP has HD without costly DNExcel cards, HD upgrades, MojoDX boxes that cost lakhs of Rupees for Avid owners.

This has always been a criticism of Avid, and continues to have validity. All recent (v3 onward if not earlier) Media Composer software is HD capable, regardless of hardware – so with file-based workflows there’s not a huge difference, but monitoring is difficult.

HD hardware was certainly a LOT more expensive for Avid before the DX hardware range, and is now quite a bit more expensive in Avid than in FCP. This is precisely the reason we purchased a Mac Pro with FCP and Blackmagic DeckLink card when I was working at Bunker Media, we had to online an HD series, and upgrading the Avid system was cost-prohibitive.

However there are a lot more factors to consider than simply the cost of I/O hardware, and when extend to a full professional editing setup the cost differences are not nearly as significant as they may seem. Also consider long-term value. I personally know of suites operating Media Composer 5 on HP XW8200s with Adrenaline HD hardware – that is hardware that was new in 2003. FCP7 requires a Intel-based Mac. An FCP suite in that period of time would probably have been through at least three workstations, and 2-3 sets of I/O hardware.

Easier to use
For the novice, FCP is easier to use. And master.

Easier to use? Probably. Easier to master? Not so sure about that – the easy stuff in FCP is easy, but the complicated stuff can become VERY complicated. But it’s all pretty subjective really, and I doubt there’s much difference for a motivated learner.

Scalable over systems
FCP is the same whether on a laptop, an iMac or a desktop MacPro. All that changes is the hardware that’s used for capture or monitoring. And that’s optional.

I run Media Composer 5 on my (totally unqualified) laptop. It also runs on an XW8200 from 2003, and a nice new Z800. Avid seems pretty picky when it comes to hardware support, but in reality it runs of a lot of hardware if you observe a few basic requiredments. FCP only runs on Apple hardware.

XML interchange
FCP sequence information can be exported as XML which carries more info than EDLs do. Letting you carry over multi-track edits to other systems like Smoke, Quantel eQ and others. XML works great for subtitle work too.

FCP XML is a pretty good project interchange format. Avid has AAF (an open standard built on the foundation of MXF) which offers the same features, and more (it can also embed media). AAF is supported in Smoke, eQ and many more.

Online review and approval with iChat
Edit and show your timeline to someone hundreds of kilometers away whilst still being able to make changes on the fly. With iChat sharing.

I’ll give him that. It’s a pretty neat feature. A little niche perhaps (maybe not in India?). The same functionality can be reproduced with Avid and a variety of third-party tools, but not as easily.

Easy speed change tools
Motion effects don’t need to make new media. And ramps are easy drag and drop too.

Media Composer has had dynamic motion effects since Media Composer Adrenaline version 1. I’m pretty sure Avid’s motion effect controls are easier to use than in FCP, and the visual performance of Avid’s motion effects is much better than FCP’s.

Easier to keep upgraded
FCP has a software update about every year or so. And upgrades cost less that Rs 20,000 mostly. You don’t need to buy costly annual maintenance plans to get upgrades. Most Macs support the next version for at least 3 years.
By that time, FCP has made you so much money you can afford a new Mac. Most likely, your cards will work with the new version.

I’m pretty sure FCP’s release schedule is closer to 18-months (or worse?). Not sure about cost in India, but it latest FCP upgrade is US$300.

Avid’s upgrade schedule was at about 18-months for a while, but has actually increased to maybe 6-9 months over the last few versions. A support contract is not required for upgrades, and typically an Avid upgrade costs around US$500.

I’d expect to get 2-3 years at least from a decent Avid workstation as well. And at least up to version 5 all previous Avid hardware since Adrenaline (2003) is still supported and fully functional.

Final Cut Studio
Final Cut Pro is only a part of a suite of products collectively called Final Cut Studio. All bundled with FCP. They are… Motion, Soundtrack Pro, Color, DVD Studio Pro, Compressor, Cinema Tools.

Indeed, Final Cut Studio is a good bundle. Avid also offers bundled products – not quite as plentiful as those in FCS, but they can at least pretty reasonably answer Motion (Avid FX), Compressor (Sorenson Squeeze), DVD Studio Pro (Avid DVD) and Cinema Tools (MetaSync Film Scribe) .

Advanced colour correction in Color
Colour correction that could only be done in million dollar DaVinci and other systems can now be achieved in Apple Color. A good colorist and a ‘grading panel’ can make this into a full-fledged grading suite.
Sequences can be sent to color and returned without any EDLs. Even DPX, and 4k is possible within FCP and Color.

I have no problem with this – Color is a very powerful tool, I graded NZ’s first HD drama series with it. It has it’s limitations, and they are limitations you need to understand before undertaking big projects, but it’s overall a very good product at a fantastic prices (free, or $1000, depending on how you look at it).

Motion graphics in Motion
Easily send your sequence or some clips to Motion and do complex match moves, stabilize, tracking, chroma keying and other advanced ‘online’ stuff.

Complex title graphics in Motion or LiveType 
Amazing title work within Motion or LiveType with older Final Cut versions.

These two are pretty reasonable too. Motion can be frustrating for complex jobs, but it’s generally good. LiveType I never liked, but some people use it. Avid has similar workflow with Avid FX (aka Boris Red) which is powerful but under appreciated. Also Avid’s Marquee titler is also very powerful, but clunky and annoying for some things.

That said, Avid can do a number of those things pretty well natively – it has very solid tracking, stabilization and the SpectraMatte keyer is great. Also, Avid’s standard Title Tool is fantastic when compared to anything FCP has in it – I hate the FCP title tools so much.

Sound design in Soundtrack Pro
Pro Tools like sound design work is possible within Soundtrack Pro. Even easy Dolby surround work. FCP and Soundtrack automatically synchronize timelines so change the edit in FCP and the sound work changes automatically. Great clean up and noise removal tools too

Royalty free sound samples
Final Cut Studio ships with Gigabytes of free sound. If you know how, you can compose an entire background music, or even song track for a long film too.

I’ve never really used Soundtrack Pro so I can’t say much about it. Avid also bundles a sound design tool (Smartsound Sonicfire) and samples, which I’ve also never used, so can’t compare them obviously. Avid doesn’t bundle any sound editing software, but they do of course make ProTools which is the king in post-production audio.

DVD/Blu-ray making directly
Make a DVD or Blu-Ray directly within FCP.

DVD authoring in DVD Studio Pro
For advanced authored DVDs with chapters, menus and sub-menus and stuff that’s sold in shops, DVD Studio Pro lets you make them. And send them off to a duplicator to make thousands or lakhs.

These functions are available through Avid DVD (including Blu-Ray authoring, something DVD Studio Pro continues to exclude).

Media database and film workflow with Cinema Tools
All the 24-25 stuff, telecine logs, cut lists pull lists. Even managing Red and Canon files, is done within Cinema Tools. Frame accurate, perf accurate.

MetaSync Film Scribe and EDL Manager do this for Avid. It’s also at the core of what Avid has always down best.

Encoding to various formats with Compressor
After editing one almost always needs to send out stuff to the web – YouTube, Vimeo, H.264, Windows media and many other formats created automatically and in the background.

Media Composer has a pretty decent ‘Export’ setting of it’s own. Alternatively Sorenson Squeeze will do all that too.

That’s it.

Neil goes on to explain in his disclaimer than he hasn’t used Avid much in the last 10 years. Which probably explains a lot of what came before. The frustrating thing about his whole post is that it presents a lot of misinformation as fact, and claims to be coming from an authority (Neil is actually a community leader on the Creative COW FCP forum)

As a general observation I’ve often felt that FCP users are a lot more inaccurate in their perceptions of Avid’s abilities and limitations than Avid users are of FCP’s. It has seemed to me that many FCP users are very misinformed and often years out of date about Media Composer, whereas Avid users seems to be quite aware of what FCP does and doesn’t do well.

We all have our preferences, but we don’t do ourselves any favours by simply ignoring ‘the competition’. Being broadly skilled can only be an advantage.

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