The first thing that many people knew about Apple Final Cut Server is that it was late. Didn't even know what it was. They just saw people speculating that it was so late it might be yet another product announced but never shipped...until of course it did.
It's still new, barely a month out of the womb. We're a long way from knowing everything there is to know about how Final Cut Server works in the real world, with the variety of workflows, formats and system configurations that people are actually working with.
Let's get the simple stuff out of the way first. Final Cut Server is software. It runs on a computer that other computers are connected to, using storage that isn't necessarily made by Apple. As Matthew Nelson says in the Cow's FC Server forum, “FCServer is...a much needed tool for those of us who have to manage multiple projects.”
Mike Jennings continues, “You can coordinate productions with different or overlapping assets, assign them to users, and users can copy the proxy files or the raw data locally for editing. They can check in or check out assets and upload the results back into the system for approval (all with email notifications).”
Jon Rutherford: “It also has very powerful automation tools to streamline the workflow process as much as possible.”
As one IT website notes, “Final Cut Server is basically a cross platform asset management database that enables you to better keep track of, and search through, all of your tapes, clips, files, graphics, images, music tracks etc.. the iTunes of video asset management.”
CIO Today, required reading for IT uber-dweebs (said affectionaly, as dweebs ourselves), says that FC Server “automatically catalogs collections of assets and provides the ability to search across a variety of hard disks and network volumes. The server allows a user to view, annotate and approve content from anywhere via a local computer.
“A user can search from a PC or a Mac. Searches can be conducted with simple keywords or combinations of IPTC, XMP or XML metadata. There are also a range of access controls that can be defined to determine user permissions for a specific asset or an individual project.”
(One of the things I mean by “uber-dweeb” is that these guys are the bosses of dweebs. You can sense the displeasure in the headline “Apple Finally Releases Final Cut Server,” with the first sentence beginning “After some delay...” Fine, fine. Got it.)
Manage more than one project at a time, with more than one editor at a time. Control user access and permissions. Add options to where and how everybody works. Track the work that everyone does, including tracking changes. Have email automatically notify the team as needed.
Collaborate across platforms.
Get it to do pretty much anything you want.
That's a very small part of the picture, but so far, so good. It's easy to understand why people are getting excited.
To begin though, it looks like the baby metaphor may not be too far off the mark: beautiful, with boundless potential...and needing the drool wiped from its chin every now and again.
California Historical Society
At the same time, we're finding as we talk about it that, as much as it needs to grow, we may not understand all that we need to just yet either.
This is the great thing about the Cow – in this case, specifically the new Final Cut Server forum. Instead of a single reviewer working with a single set of circumstances, there are bunches of us (or YOU anyway) working in a wide range of circumstances. As systems get set up and shaken down, new information is constantly emerging as the conversation continues, and we help each other grow.
So while we look forward to a BUNCH of formal reviews, here's a look at where we are right now. This is Final Cut Server, in real time, baby.
“The stork brought you”
This is my favorite answer EVER to the question of “Mommy, where did I come from?”
Anyway, this section isn't going to be as, uhm, sexy, as the story of where babies come from, but if you want to understand the full range of what FC Server is up to, it helps to understand where it began, as a gleam in the eye of....
...sorry. Enough of the baby thing.
The Proximity Group was a small company developing digital asset management software (DAM), but that doesn't even begin to explain it. I mean, rational folder structure and Spotlight or Google Desktop is about all that you need to keep up with your stuff.
Besides – assets? Have you EVER used the word “assets” to describe your footage, your projects, your scripts, music, graphics, animations, spreadsheets – everything that you've made, bought, sold, or worked with? Everything you've MADE? Of course not. Asset is an accurate enough word, but it's not TRUE. While it may not be art, it's YOUR WORK, not your “assets.”
So start by thinking of it as WORK management. Or hey, art management is fine too. But FC Server isn't only interested in the final products. Maybe not even primarily. It's designed to support the creative PROCESS, and to keep the pieces together as they merge to create something new.
Notice I didn't say “workflow” either. Accurate enough, but....
At the end of 2006, Apple bought the assets (sigh) of the aforementioned Proximity, with their Artbox application as the star of the show. You have to love the notice at proximitygroup.com:
Other than a larger page, that's the sum total of their website today.
As much as * I * hate words like “asset management” and “workflow,” the kids at Proximity obviously didn't feel the same. As their-then Senior VP of Sales and Marketing put it, “"With our Artbox DAM solution, it's easy to access assets sitting on different platforms and to configure the environment to support your workflow.”
The reality obscured there is that Artbox was a huge stride forward, enabling creative processes that simply weren't possible before without driving yourself insane.
It was to collaboration what NLEs are to editing: the same general thing, with the same general outcome, but more quickly and less painfully. By getting logistical obstacles out of the way, it creates new possibilities.
It was a big enough deal that Proximity won a Technical Emmy in 2003 for the work that led to Artbox, which launched in 2004.
And here's a great peek at the rest of the Proximity product line that Apple acquired, with many more clues about what's here in Final Cut Server, and what might be coming.
Just so we're properly calibrated: Artbox ran $20K. FC Server starts at $999 for 10 clients, $2K for unlimited clients.
So who's it for?
The FC Server information at Apple.com is great. The problem for some folks is that there's a little too much of it. (Here's my very favorite summary. It's a dandy movie, so rather than bother with a bunch of static screenshots, I'll let you see in action.)
I mentioned some of the broad strokes earlier, so let's get a little nittier and grittier as we look at how FC Server can work in various environments.
The easiest example to understand is also the most complex: a massive digital newsroom like, say, noted Artbox users at CNN. They have terrabytes of both active and archived footage, maps, music, title animations, scripts, and more being added around the clock, around the globe, and it has to be available to everyone.
The additional challenge in newsrooms is that nobody makes everything. Somebody has to tie it all together.
Since Artbox supports multiple devices and formats, users can select best-of-breed solutions that meet their requirements. The tool can convert between all major still and video formats, and interfaces with current and legacy equipment from manufacturers such as Avid, Adobe, Chyron, Discreet, Grass Valley, Leitch, Omneon, Pinnacle, Quantel and Sundance. Artbox's content management module stores artwork in its native format. Users can search, locate, transfer and transcode artwork across multiple platforms and formats. The artist no longer needs to be concerned with format conversion and where to store the asset.
Here's a picture of what that might look like. Click image for larger. Really. Nobody can read that. Click it.
Now imagine a hundred overworked, underpaid, hypercaffeinated, sleep-deprived NORMAL humans without IT backgrounds scurrying through all those arrows. These folks need all the help staying on track that they can get.
(Hey, and see that iNews station in the lower left. That's from Avid. That's the point – plays nice with everyone.)
But it's not just video. Enterprise customers used Artbox, and are adopting FC Server for the same reasons. PowerPoint, Word, Excel, Visio, Photoshop, Illustrator, AutoCAD....keep going. If it's a document that more than one person might touch, it's worth tracking. The more documents, the more users, the more visibility into the process you want, the more important FC Server becomes, even for hardcore business at its most UN-creative.
It's worth taking a gander at Apple's FC Server pitch to its business customers. Actually, it's pretty much the exact same pitch as to post customers except with fewer words.
So what about post customers? In Hollywood, check. Lots of assets, lots of editors.
Hollywood Blvd. from the Kodak Theater. Wikipedia Commons.
Well, maybe not so many. The average Hollywood configuration is 4 systems. A massive SFX epic like King Kong had 9. You don't have to look far in the Cow to see plenty of folks with shops bigger than that.
It's not marketing hype when Apple says “Final Cut Server helps any production workgroup — from a two-person boutique to a global news operation — work smoothly and efficiently.” After all, even in the Pro Apps, the workflow has, until now, been optimized for small teams...if not ONE person teams.
And there's a REASON why it's FINAL CUT Server and not xDAM or iCollaborate. It's built around Final Cut Pro.
Here's an imaginary scenario for a one-person shop. You've got a rough cut that you need to work through with the client. The edit's not complete, graphics are in flux, and you need to go shoot.
Get the client to launch a Java app on their Windows machine, and take a look at the project. They can make notes, use the version control to roll back to an earlier version of the logo – even though they signed off on it a MONTH ago. But the graphics are the only things they have permission to change. Everything else is locked to them.
So they do the work without doing damage. (Hey Apple, you can have that one for free.) And you can be out earning money on another job.
NOW how much would you pay?
Seriously, $1000 for ten seats (you and 9 simultaneous clients) is looking like a steal. So if you're in “small post,” don't be led astray by the “newsroom,” “enterprise,” “Hollywood” stories. Of course, if you're in one of those latter 3 categories, well, there you go.
Yeah, but how's it working out?
Here we turn back to our real time report. Wellll.....
Some good news first.
Mike Jennings: “Final Cut Server isn't too fussy about storage devices, so if you want an alternative to XServe RAID, go for it...That said, XServe RAID is trivial to integrate, easy to administer and very well-designed. For someone who wants good performance and high availability without having to learn to be a sysadmin nerd, XServe and XServe RAID is a damn fine combo.
Final Cut Server also has excellent archiving support, so plan on adding an archive/backup device of some sort...even if it's just a giant slow cheap disk array.”
By the way, since FC Server plays nicely with Avid clients, can FC Server run on Unity? Not so, says Dom Silverio. “You cannot use the Avid Unity backbone (storage + file manage computer) to drive FC Server. The Avid storage chasis and File manager runs on Windows. [It supports PC clients working with projects, but] FC Server is OS X based. Even if the hardware allows you, you will need to delete your entire Unity, since Unity uses its own proprietary file format and you cannot run another software that manages permissions. It will conflict.”
Jon Rutherford: It also has very powerful automation tools to streamline the workflow process as much as possible . Things like automatic transcoding and email notifications are examples of this.
When media is uploaded into FCSvr it creates an asset in the FCSvr database (or catalog). These assets include a lo-res proxy for browsing over IP. The specific proxy settings can be customized to meet your needs. I just did an install where we built a custom Compressor preset just for this purpose.
Another feature FCSvr has is what is called "Edit Proxies" these are PreRes 422 versions of your assets used by editors when the original format is too large to handle over IP. While ProRes 422 is still a bit large it is NOT as large as uncompressed.”
And for the rest of the story:
Charlie Tear: "With more insight into the working methods of average day to day TV editors and production staff, (reviewing stuff which hasn't been topped and tailed and pre-cut into small chunks by an apprentice, working with long interview rushes or GV tapes etc etc etc) I think Apple will nail it and make it into an industry-leading app, but for now, for our news/sports centered workflows at least, I will have to file under "huge potential but massive disappointment.”
Mike J.: Several operations encourage you to export, copy locally etc, spawning a dangerous number of asset copies. I'd prefer to avoid that; I'm hoping edit in place will work, but I haven't gotten it working. I'm not using my SAN yet, but all the clients have access to the server by gigabit ethernet. Not sure how to troubleshoot that -- I might call support.
I was REALLY disappointed that it doesn't handle native, unwrapped MXF files from a Panasonic camera. My intended workflow was to set up a watcher and have it suck in from the P2 cards more or less unattended but that's kind of broken.
This next bit isn't negative, but you you need to take it into account. “Just so everyone understands, this product has a great deal of power,” says Jon R. “While the product sells for $2000 (unlimited, $999 for 10 seats) time and resources must be planned for a proper installation. It is not something you just take out of the box and install. It has to be configured for your basic needs and facility/environment.
“Planning the workflow before the actual installation is highly recommended. This is not to scare anyone off. Just setting proper expectations.”
If you're looking for the most advanced features of FC Server, Jon recommends Xserve. Even simple email notifications would be difficult to setup on a system only running Mac OS X 10.5 client. Workgroup manager and other server apps really make the overall FCSvr set up and configuration easier and run better.
Mike Jennings: Tip for those of you setting up a server: Don't change the IP address of the server. The client app often won't launch afterward, and you have to hunt it down, delete it, and re-download the client app.
Another tip: You may want to start with Leopard Server so that you can easily use Open Directory or Active Directory to manage user authentication.
So what about the future?
“One question I have is about FCP Server's support of assets for *other* devices. I was talking to the Proximity people a few years ago about asset management for clips going to our Avid (nee Pinnacle) Thunder. They had a solution, but it cost over $20,000. I kind of get the feeling that those "Artbox" features are probably no longer part of FCP Server. Does anyone know if they made it to the new product?”
Good question. We're still poking around to see, but on the same thread Walter Biscardi reminds us that Apple rolled the $25K Final Touch system into Final Cut Studio for FREE without limiting features.
Charlie says, “I believe it will be a great product one day and we would have been happy to pay ten times the price for it to be delivered full-featured and airtight - shot selection tool and all - as it still would be several times cheaper than most of the competitors, and truly offer the kind of integration with FCP we had all been hoping for.”
As I read the forum again to put this together, my own assessment is, if you need it today, go for it. There are smart, quickly-becoming-experienced folks who'll help. If you can wait, it may not a bad idea.
My concluding conclusion? Apple's history of acquiring Pro Apps from other folks tells us two things. One is that they don't always stick landings on the first Apple-branded version out of the gate. The other is that they're diligent about making improvements.
Ah, baby's first steps! My alpha disk of Macromedia Final Cut for Windows and Mac. Wasn't he cute?
Anyway, I invite you to join me in the Creative Cow Final Cut Server forum. You'll see the rest of the story I've summarized here, and be able to see new developments in real time.