When I first wrote this article back in August 2002 a debate was raging; was Final Cut Pro viable as a professional post-production tool? At that point I had been working on Final Cut for 9 months and had owned my own SDI- FCP-based edit suite for 3 months. I decided to share my insights and write an article. The response to that article has been overwhelmingly positive. 4 years later I'm still collecting emails from producers and editors who find the article instructive. Of course, after every new release of Final Cut they generally ask the same question, "That was then, how about now?"
This article is my answer, now in its 3rd edition, updated for Final Cut Pro version 5.
Special Thanks to the following people for their invaluable contributions to this article: Mark Raudonis, George Creedle, Oliver Peters, Terence Curren, Frank Capria, and Martin Baker. Any inaccuracies in this piece are my fault alone.
This article is for producers and editors. It answers the question, what situations would force an editor or producer to choose to work on an Avid instead of Final Cut Pro?
Originally written in 2002, it has been entirely rewritten to reflect where we stand today, the start of 2006. You can find the 2004 and 2002 versions of this article here and here. Enjoy!
Question: What is the difference between Apple's Final Cut Pro and Avid's Media Composer?
Not when it comes to creating first-class, professional results in a timely manner. They both get the job done on-budget and on-time.
But when it comes to how we approach our projects or how we interact with the software itself, there are some meaningful differences. I generally classify these differences into two types:
- Big Picture differences are those which will actually impact our choice of software; when is it smarter to do a job in Avid rather than Final Cut Pro? These Big Picture differences are few, but should definitely be heeded. For Final Cut users, they might be show-stoppers.
- Smaller Stuff differences are differences that may impact workflow but shouldn't have much impact on our ability to produce a professional product in a time- or cost-effective manner. These Smaller Stuff differences, if discovered mid-project, may cause headaches - but rarely will they bring a project to a grinding halt. But being prepared up-front should help you avoid overages.
As for my credentials... well, I've edited Avid (starting in 1992) and Final Cut (starting in 2001), and many others. While I've decided to build my edit suite around Final Cut Pro, I consider it my job to understand its relative weaknesses. Nor am I unduly critical of Avid, having made a career of it in the past. In fact, if you were to ask me to name the best non-linear editor on the market, without hesitation I'd answer Discreet Logic's Smoke - if it were about $120,000 cheaper. But it's not. So instead (and because this topic is more interesting to me) I'll evaluate the merits of Final Cut Pro in relation to Avid. What follows is my contribution to this ongoing discussion.
The Big Picture
- Networked Editorial Pipeline: Solved! Do you need to share footage among dozens and dozens of editors? Control who has access to footage while throttling the bandwidth to certain users to ensure the finishing room won't drop frames while producers down the hall are watching a rough cut? Do you need 24/7 uptime reliability, confident that a hard drive failure doesn't impact any of your end-users? What if you also need to dynamically expand or remove the amount of storage allocated to any given shared storage space? Do you also need to lock down specific media volumes so that your Pepsi clients never ever see the footage from that new Coke commercial? In the 2004 edition of this article the only system capable of this kind of hard-core capability was Avid, via their Unity product line. In years past Unity was proof of Avid's industrial grade quality and was at the top of everyone's list of what separated Avid from Final Cut. And so this issue stays at the top of the list this year, but with a twist...
In 2006 there's another player on the scene. It's shipping and it's called Xsan. It's made by Apple and it's being used with Final Cut Pro. In researching this article I was blind-sided by its capabilities. It blew through my prejudice that Unity was the only solution for the type of large scaled networked editorial installations I just described. And like its Unity competitor the architecture is redundant, scalable, and is best implemented if you bring a "high-end" attitude to building one of these systems. Cut corners, and it'll bite you (no, it's not a good idea to use your Mac mini as a metadata controller). But if you surround it with a capable IT staff and follow Apple's guidelines you can do what Unity does, and do it with Final Cut Pro. Built upon Xserve Raids and Xserve G5s, here's a small sampling of Xsans feature set:
- Mix and match Raid 0 and Raid 5 stripes. XSan calls it Affinities. Use Raid 5 where data protection is paramount and Raid 0 where throughput is a priority (like High-Def finishing).
- Security and permissions can be as tight or as loose as you want. As we expect when working at this level of shared resources, read/write access can be restricted based on a mixture of permissions settings, completely locking different projects out from each other and allowing specific users or class of users (logger, editors, producers) to read-only some files while writing to others. These Unix-style premissions can also be applied at the file, folder, user, or volume level.
If you're considering a large networked editorial pipeline, Avid is no longer the only kid on the block. XSan is a serious solution for a complex problem. And since it's up to 40% less expensive for a comparable Unity install you can spend that savings to triple your storage capacity (eliminating the need to constantly wipe media off your drives to make room for new media) and double the number of Final Cut seats (so everyone from the Script Department to Production Assistants to Post Audio to the Executive Producer can have Final Cut on their iMac - ready to approve an edit moments after it's ready). This is a big change since the 2004 version of this article and eliminates one major reason for choosing Avid over Final Cut. On this item Apple has achieved parity and can now play with the big boys.
Multicam: Solved! A long-time deficiency in Final Cut Pro was multicamera timelines. Like Unity, the lack of multicam was considered another missing link that defined Final Cut as a "poor-man's Avid". Avid has a great multicamera editing workflow. It's fast. It's efficient. It's easy to use. But Final Cut Pro has introduced its own multicam workflow. I can't say if it's on par with Avid's (I haven't worked with it yet). But it's there, it's working, and I've spoken with a few experienced editors who really like it. For a quick overview check out this article and this multimedia overview on Apple's website.
Media Management: In previous editions of this article this item used to be in the Smaller Stuff section. No longer. The Media Manager hasn't had a serious update in 4 years. It still does a terrible job handling time remaps and Final Cut gets flakey on clips with no reel numbers (like After Effects renders). Final Cut's Media Manager requires much more hand holding than it should, especially for a Version 5 product. To be fair, the various public forums and mailing lists have noticeably fewer editors ranting about Media Management. Improvements have been made. But when it comes to media management there's no such thing as a small bug. It's time for Apple's Final Cut team to abandon its current practice of incrementally fixing the Media Manager, leaving its users in doubt as to its status and never knowing when it's going to bite us. Editors need confidence in their tools. The Final Cut team needs to stop giving editors a strong valid reason to prefer Avid over Final Cut.
Color Correction Toolset: In years past I've been reluctant to consider the Final Cut color corrector for inclusion in this article. Why? The Final Cut color correction tools are good. They get the job done, and done well, in 95% of the situations. But Avid has migrated some of the Symphony color corrector down its product line while the Final Cut color corrector hasn't been touched. Today, the Avid color correction workflow remains the better of the two; enough to give many talented editors a continued reason to avoid Final Cut.
On Avid Symphony's color corrector you can apply corrections across an entire show based on "Master Clip," "Source Clip Name" or "Tape name". And corrections can be removed just as easily. Useful functionality, unless you spend most of your time finishing "reality-style" productions. With their frequent changes in color temperature, iris, and locations it can be a fool's quest to apply one correction to a single clip, much less an entire tape (trust me, I know). For my money, where Avid has the upper-hand is its Photoshop-style curves editor, available across Avid's product line. Curves give a finisher tremendous power over the image. Final Cut, lacking a curves editor, leaves us at the mercy of the "Blacks, "Mids", "Whites" controls. Changes to the Whites values can creep all the way down into the Blacks. Mids spread out to the Blacks and Whites while changes to the Blacks can infect the brightest Whites. But with a curves editor you can restrict your corrections to a very defined section of the image (and restrict it even further to just the Red, Green, or Blue channel), leaving the rest of the image untouched. For the serious finisher it's a compelling reason to choose Avid over Final Cut.
Apple needs only look at Color Finesse to understand what kind of color controls its power users crave to be integrated into Final Cut. Detracting from Avid is the fact they cripple the color corrector in the same way they stratify their product line (more on that in moments). "Non-Symphony" Avids are deprived of curves control on channels as well as a host of other powerful Symphony color correction features. Yet let me be clear, from the perspective of a Final Cut finisher, Final Cut's color correction deficiencies slow me down, they don't knock me out of the game - but I'd sure appreciate a boost.
Stratified Product Line: Another big difference between the software platforms are, well, the platforms. With Avid there are a half-dozen different flavors of Avid. Some Avids have more features than other Avids. Some even have completely different interfaces. And moving up the Avid hierarchy means buying a whole new system. So as a Producer or Editor you have to know exactly what you want out of your Avid before you book (or buy) the Avid. All of this makes purchasing or booking an Avid needlessly complex, adding fuel to Final Cut Pro's fire.
Final Cut, by contrast, is Final Cut. Whether you're working in DV or HD the interface is the same, the projects are the same - which means they are 100% interchangeable. The only difference between any two Final Cut systems is the hardware that pulls in and spits out the video (allowing you, for instance, to digitize Digital Betacam or output High Definition). And unlike Avid, if you want to upgrade your hardware, it's just a matter of adding a few boards - there's no new software to learn. On Avid, the worst case scenario requires you to not only buy an entirely new computer rig, but to also learn an entirely new program; perfect examples are the stars of the Avid High-Definition solutions Symphony Nitris and DS Nitris.
On Final Cut. the interface stays the same.
Note: Most Final Cut systems are custom setups. Producers might have to hunt around for a system that meets their exact needs. Of course, the same is essentially true for Avid (Avid's product line being insanely stratified) - so on this point there is parity. But from an Editor's point of view, you can walk into any Final Cut Pro suite in the world and know exactly how to run the software, no matter the hardware hanging off it.
Sweating the Smaller Stuff
From a Producer's point of view, when considering integrating Final Cut Pro, there are other, smaller areas that might trip up a project, depending on your workflow. And if these Smaller Stuff issues effect you, they can be worked around - especially if you plan ahead.
As an editor, when evaluating Final Cut, there aren't too many fundamental differences between the platforms that hasn't already been covered... but here are some things to think about:
- Timeline Flexibility: Final Cut is far less regimented than Avid. Final Cut has no Segment Mode. More precisely, Final Cut is always in Segment Mode. Clips can be swapped, moved or dragged as quickly as you can move. Cut and Paste entire clips, tracks, timelines. Keep open as many timelines and projects as your RAM can handle and drag and drop clips, sequences, and bins between them. This kind of flexibility takes some time to get used to, but it's difficult to go back to Avid's regimented way of working.
XML Integration: Given Apple's reputation for creating closed systems, I find it surprising that Apple decided to go ahead with the XML framework for all its profession apps - but we are all becoming the beneficiaries of that decision. By this I mean, great new workflows are being developed for Final Cut that either aren't being developed for Avid or are being developed more slowly. If, for instance, you need to do lots of versioning try Digital Heaven's AutoMotion or xm|Edit's Traffic. Does Final Cut's color corrector not make the grade? With XML output of your timeline you can move into dedicated color correction interfaces such as Silicon Color's Final Touch and Synthetic Aperture's Color Finesse both of which support specialty control interfaces. Note: As of this writing Color Finesse 2 is not yet shipping.
In all these apps, XML allows developers to fill gaps in Final Cut and profitably sell to niches outside Apple's line-of-sight. How does all this XML stuff work? I don't know. I leave it to the geeks and plunk down my change whenever I need some specific workflow enhancement that Apple hasn't yet implemented. I'm just not seeing this kind of energy on Avid's side of the ledger.
Studio Bundle Wars: When I first wrote this section I figured, in comparison to Avid, the biggest improvement in Final Cut Pro over the past 4 years isn't Final Cut, but all the apps that come bundled with it. After some reader comments and lots of rummaging it's pretty clear Avid has done a good job of keeping up with the Jones'. I'm going to call this race a tie. I was going to eliminate this section but because I've already written it, because electrons are cheap, and because it's interesting to see how competition has pushed both these companies, I'll keep these comments for the 2006 version of the article...
In the last two years Apple has recognized that life for many editors goes beyond merely the timeline. Thus was born Final Cut Studio, an array of useful apps to round out any edit suite: LiveType and Motion for type and motion graphics; Soundtrack Pro for audio repairs, mixing, and sweetening; Compressor 2 for creating DVD MPEG-2s and Quicktime .movs; DVD Studio Pro for DVD authoring. All these apps ship with Final Cut Pro. In fact, you can't even buy Final Cut as a stand-alone app. It's Final Cut Studio or nothing. DVD Studio Pro and Final Cut Pro are each worth the price of the bundle.
It seems Avid hasn't been asleep at the wheel. Understanding the productivity boost that the Studio bundle offers, Avid has answered with several Studio bundles including the Avid XpressPro Studio HD. In typical Avid fashion, there are at least three different versions of this bundle (seriously, Avid seems genetically unable to streamline its product offerings). The full, most expensive version includes Avid 3D, Avid FX (a filters package), Avid DVD by Sonic, Avid ProTools LE, the Avid Mojo hardware interface and accelerator, and a ProTools firewire-based control surface. Overall an impressive package and not overpriced. But PC only (sorry Mac users).
Avid's Studio bundle certainly looks impressive, especially considering the hardware it offers. In contrast, Apple keeps their product offering simple and straightforward. All or nothing and at almost 1/6th the price; leaving Mac users plenty of cash to pick up a good control surface and hardware interface and still have cash left over. Personally, I'd like to see someone do an article comparing how well Avid's Studio apps work together compared with Final Cut Studio's apps. On the surface, I'd say both Studio packages are evenly matched with Apple gaining a slight edge for value and being a bigger winner if you need (or want) to work on a Mac.
4 years later and Final Cut Pro has made big strides. This edition is the first time I had to do a major rewrite from the article I wrote in 2002. And Apple has solved the majority of issues we had back then. In fact, given Final Cut's level of maturity I deducted a few points this time around because the Media Manager, in spite of recent improvements, has yet to inspire the confidence it must. All the other Big Stuff issues have either been solved or are lesser issues elevated due to the maturity of the platform. Therefore, my original conclusion holds more true today than at any time over the past 4 years: both Avid and Final Cut are professional-level apps. More importantly, Final Cut Pro has no real inherent limitations when compared to Avid. The only reason to choose one platform over the other is personal preference. So to all those producers out there wondering if they should avoid or seek out editors working on Final Cut Pro...
...buy the editor, not the software. If you follow that advice, most all of the issues discussed above will be completely invisible to you because good talent will overcome software and workflow issues.
And to all those editors out there who get so heated up in these Avid vs FCP discussions...
...that boat left the harbor many years ago. The time has passed when our success as editors is defined by our access to a limited supply of very expensive black boxes. Going forward our success will defined by our dedication... not to the toolset, but to the craft.
Patrick Inhofer is an editor, compositor, and nice guy. He has 14 years experience in post-production and broadcast graphics. He is also the guy in charge of Fini. You can praise him or flame him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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