Walter Biscardi has been part of Creative COW since before there was a COW, in its prior incarnation. He holds the record for most posts at CreativeCOW.net, coming up on 24,000 of them. His article "FCPX: What Pros Find Missing in Final Cut Pro X" is one of the most popular in the past six months at the COW, with another co-written by Richard Harrington called "Why We Can't Use Final Cut Pro X at Our Companies" right behind it.
In addition to his many articles and blog posts, it has been a pleasure reading hundreds of articulate posts from Walter on these issues.
That's why we've asked him to crystallize his perspectives, both the ones he's already written, and the ones he continues to develop as he works with Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer, and Apple Final Cut Pro every day in an expanding facility.
We also asked him to write this because we knew that he'd call 'em as he sees 'em, nothing held back. His opinions are his own of course, and we welcome them without filtering.
We see that Walter has earned his position of respect at the very top of the industry because of the way he roots his strong opinions in real-world experience. Even the people who don't agree with him read what he writes because they want to come along for the ride.
Buckle up for Walter's view of the long strange trip that this year has been.
Until April of 2011 it all seemed too easy. Avid was on the ropes, Adobe was an afterthought, and Apple was on the way to world dominance with Final Cut Pro. In the 18 months leading up to NAB 2011, Apple had the most incredible run of momentum that the industry had ever witnessed. All they had to do was deliver the knockout punch with an enhanced Final Cut Studio 4.
Because the post production community is kinda small, I had a pretty darn good idea of what we were going to see when Final Cut Pro X was unveiled, but I thought, "I have to see it to believe it." It was hard for me to fathom that Apple was going to take 12 years of professional software development and start over with essentially version 1.0. What we saw was even worse than expected: it was clear the tool was aimed squarely to a much more mass market, consumer / hobbyist audience than the post production market.
A complete reboot is a fine decision for a consumer-focused product, a movie franchise, or even a videogame franchise, but the professional world responded with a resounding, "Let's see what else is out there." Or more accurately and concisely, they responded with a resounding "WTF?"
Make no mistake. Apple released EXACTLY the software they intended to release. This was not merely a "1.0 and we'll add things back to it later." This was years in the making, and what we saw in April of 2011, and what Apple released in June, is precisely what Apple felt was going to change the post production industry for the better.
From a business perspective, Final Cut Pro X presents some significant challenges. First, everything about it is different from the industry norm. As a concept, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but when you go so far as to even change all the terminology, that creates problems, particularly with media management that completely and utterly changes what we have considered "a project" to be for all these years.
Also, the creative field is a collaborative one. With FCPX's closed architecture it was not possible, for example, to send a project to Pro Tools for sound mix. For those who say "Well, Apple is going to put it all back," my response is, "It should have never been removed in the first place if this was truly designed for professionals."
FCPX was released with zero support for industry-standard external hardware. Those AJA, Blackmagic and Matrox products just didn't work upon release. And what's the point of having industry-standard reference monitors and sound equipment if we can't connect to them?
FCPX was released with zero support for any project created in earlier versions of Final Cut Pro, and no way to move those projects forward -- a HUGE issue for our clients who need projects revised, which happens quite regularly.
Now, big changes are not necessarily a bad thing. In the 11 years of FCP, we've switched from analog to digital to HD to 2K to 4K. We've had to adjust our workflows all along the way to ensure that we meet the ever-changing demands of our broadcast television and independent film clients. We've had to endure an endless array of digital formats coming out on almost a weekly basis, but as pros, we look for a natural progression that incorporates new ideas without completely throwing out what we have already learned when using earlier versions of these very products.
A colleague said it best when he said he just doesn't trust Apple any longer with his professional career. They released the software they fully intended to release, and they can turn around and change everything again at any time.
Apple singlehandedly changed the course of post production from poised to become completely dominated by Apple hardware and Final Cut Pro, to reintroducing the bulk of the industry to Adobe Premiere Pro and Avid Media Composer.
Once we really looked at the other tools and saw things we liked, that even opened up the discussion about hardware. As a business owner, do I want to be locked down to an Apple platform that is clearly now a consumer brand, or do I align myself with cross platform tools that open my company up to nearly infinite options moving forward?
ADOBE PREMIERE PRO
When folks started looking elsewhere, it was clear that Adobe Premiere Pro CS 5.5 was sitting in the catbird seat. It was essentially the Final Cut Pro 8 many of us were hoping for, especially if you selected the included option to switch the keyboard shortcuts to match Final Cut Pro 7 (very clever of Adobe to add).
But the BIG reason why Adobe was sitting so pretty was the external hardware support. Pretty much anything that worked with Final Cut Pro also worked with Adobe Premiere Pro: AJA, Blackmagic, Matrox and more all just worked with Adobe Premiere Pro. So switching to that product was as simple as clicking a different software icon -- yeah, that's the little Premiere Pro icon many of us have had installed on our machines all these years as part of the Creative Suite but never bothered to click. Final Cut Pro X gave us a really good reason to try it out.
Here's the thing. While as a whole it works very similarly to FCP 7, and, unlike FCPX, you can import your FCP 7 projects, there are a lot of little things about Premiere that are very annoying -- track assignments, audio, even project setup. But instead of telling simply telling us to deal with it and learn the "Adobe way," I've found a very open and humble product team that instead says "Yeah, these things suck and we know we need to fix them, but in the meantime, have you played with these other things that we think are pretty cool?" The Adobe team seems genuinely excited to have so many folks just naturally progressing over to their software. They're very eager to take our input and move the entire product line forward.
It's a delicate balance because they don't want to upset long time Premiere Pro users (who would do that?), while improving the product for so many coming from Final Cut Pro.
Beyond just Premiere Pro, Adobe has the full suite of products that many production professionals prefer. No one "super app" can ever match the toolset and flexibility of an entire suite. I don't care how much power you put into that "super app," a suite of products dedicated to graphic design, special effects, video editing, color enhancement, photo manipulation, audio production and even web design will always give you more options.
At the end of the day, I want the most options for my available at my fingertips rather than having to say, "Well, that's all we can do with this application." The suite is one area where Adobe clearly has Avid beat, particularly with the addition of IRIDAS SpeedGrade to the CS toolset. It will be interesting to see by NAB 2012 how that product is integrated into CS 6.
AVID MEDIA COMPOSER
...Avid kept their promise.
I've told part of this story before, but now I can tell you the rest.
I was invited to an Avid breakfast event at NAB, ironically, the morning of Apple's FCPX unveiling. What I expected was some sort of marketing presentation to anywhere from several dozen to 100 folks. What I got was 25 minutes at a small table for 10 with CEO Gary Greenfield, Senior VP Ron Greenberg, CTO Tim Claman, Senior VP Chris Gahagan, Executive VP Ken Sexton, VP Christine Viera and Sales Manager Luke Smith and a few others.
That got my attention. In all my years running Final Cut Pro, I never even had a one on one meeting with anyone on the FCP team.
Mr. Greenfield started by saying nothing was off the table, ask the team anything I want. Naturally, the first request was "Open up the Avid to my AJA Kona boards." Rather than a straight answer, they kept reiterating that "we're listening to our users," but even as they tiptoed around, it was clear that Media Composer would be more open. Supporting AJA products just made sense, since the two companies have a long history of working together -- even if nobody would come out and say it directly at that breakfast.
As the meeting ended and we were shaking hands, Mr. Greenberg leaned to me and said, "We'll have you in an Avid before the end of the year." Now mind you, I'm the guy who spent 10 years telling the editing world you DON'T need to use Avid. Save money and use Final Cut Pro! And here is the CEO of Avid telling me straight out, my AJA Kona board will be working with the next version of Media Composer, AND it will be out before the end of 2011.
You see why I could not say anything publicly about this until now. But with the release of Avid Media Composer 6, Mr. Greenberg and Avid have kept their promise.
We've tested Media Composer 6 with the AJA Kona 3 so far, and I can report that the AJA Kona 3 works better with Media Composer 6 than it ever did with Final Cut Pro. This was also a different experience than the current sluggishness with Kona in Adobe CS5.5, which I expect to improve when Adobe CS6 is released, but at the moment, the Kona boards are running in Media Composer as if the support has always been there. Performance is simply outstanding, much snappier than what I'm used to in FCP.
I have not tested with Blackmagic or Matrox products, but I'm told that they are working with Media Composer 6 as well.
Storage was the make or break decision maker for me and Avid. Avid has traditionally been very closed with their storage solutions. You used Avid storage or nothing at all. That has been changing slowly over the past few years but in our case, we're running an Ethernet-based shared storage system from Small Tree Communications: 48TB shared to up to 12 workstations all connected via Ethernet, with no management software controlling the SAN.
We have not pushed the system at all yet, but early indications are promising. We will be doing much heavier testing this week, but the fact that our Ethernet SAN is available in Media Composer at all is a huge step forward for Avid opening up their software to many more storage solutions.
THINKING ABOUT THE UNTHINKABLE: WINDOWS!
I'm about as hardcore a Mac user as I know. I own pretty much every product Apple makes. I purchase Mac Pro configurations that run anywhere from $5500 - $8500 when I upgrade, and have probably spent in excess of $300,000 or more over the 10 years of my business on Apple-related hardware and software.
Now I'm doing what I would have considered unthinkable at the beginning of this year. I'm considering Windows 7 workstations to replace our aging Mac Pros to run Adobe and Avid. We have a copy of Windows 7 in our shop that I originally intended to install into a Mac Pro, but now I'm looking at the hardware from other companies as well.
It doesn't mean that I love the thought of going to computers that run Windows, because after all, there aren't that many of them that are beautifully designed like Macs. As much we love the OS, we also really love the touch and feel of an Apple product. Steve Jobs knew that external appearance was as important as the internal workings. People had to want the device for their home or office, but Windows boxes have been pretty ugly and flimsy.
Of course, we use "headless" systems in our shop, that is, a box that sits in a machine room. The editor and client will still get the experience of working in a very nice edit suite, with all the comforts they expect. The only difference will be the operating system on the computer itself tucked away in the machine room.
We have not put a full Windows 7 test workstation in my facility just yet, but we will very soon. I'm working with my VAR to get a demo workstation in so we can run this on our SAN and do a true comparison to Adobe / Avid running in the Windows environment alongside our Mac Pros.
Yes, I said alongside our Mac Pros. I'm not going to simply throw away 10 Mac Pros in one fell swoop. That would be crazy. I will make a slow transition over to Windows as we replace the boxes, one at a time. And even there, we most likely won't replace every single Mac with Windows. Just having the ability to choose one workstation or the other based on NEED, and not just on software requirement, is absolutely huge for my bottom line. Going Adobe / Avid allows us to break some of the tethers to just one company.
The interesting thing about all of this is that I know I'm not alone. I'm sure when evaluating the expected response to Final Cut Pro X, Apple's internal discussions anticipated some users would leave the application -- but I suspect that they never expected so many people to be discussing leaving the Mac platform altogether.
OBSERVATIONS, MOVING FORWARD
It's absolutely unreal that we've gone through 12 years of a fairly steady arc of Final Cut Pro creation, foothold, acceptance and industry dominance -- and it all changed within a matter of months. It's startling to see so many people simply abandon Apple, regardless of what Apple does with FCPX after this.
- For now, we're running Avid Media Composer 6, Adobe Premiere Pro CS 5.5.2 and FCP 7 all on the same machine (we actually have two machines that are both running all three of them), and we can even run them all the applications at the same time, all with the AJA Kona 3 boards.
- I now prefer Avid DNxHD to Apple ProRes. The DNxHD codecs are lighter on our systems than ProRes, and we're really glad to see so many third party companies adding support for them.
- For existing ProRes projects, we find that both Premiere and Media Composer can work with them, Media Composer does ProRes better. We determined in testing that running ProRes in Premiere with the AJA Kona bard requires an 8 core machine. However Media Composer can run ProRes nicely on a 4 core machine. We're really not sure why. Same machine, same Kona board, but there you go.
- Avid has much more solid tape controls than Adobe at this time.
- Both Premiere and Media Composer are faster than FCP 7. Both are 64-bit. Both are metadata rich. We have completed broadcast projects with both and the end product doesn't look any different.
- If you're a freelancer, I HIGHLY recommend learning both Media Composer and Premiere. I can tell you that we will support Final Cut Pro 7, Adobe Creative Suite and Avid Media Composer in our shop because we're an independent post house and it makes sense to support all of them. As to what will be our primary editing tool, we'll make that decision in another week or so after more testing with the SAN.
In all of this, the debacle of FCPX has caused me to "lift the blinders" that kept me focused solely on Apple. There's a whole new world out there, and I am now open to accept the possibilities, no matter where these new opportunities come from.