FCPX Magnetic Timeline: Apple's New Paradigm REVISITED
CreativeCOW presents FCPX Magnetic Timeline: Apple's New Paradigm REVISITED -- Apple Final Cut Pro X Debates & Beyond Editorial

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Editor's Note, May 2015: NLE interface design pioneer and longtime editor David Lawrence first wrote about the editing approach of FCPX, including its highly controversial Magnetic Timeline, soon after FCPX's release in the spring of 2011. Time has passed, the editing landscape has changed, some of the controversy around X has diminished, and some of X's early detractors have been become fans. While FCPX has in fact become an important part of David's workflow, some of his initial observations ring truer than ever. So we asked David to take another look at his thoughts at the time, to see what he might like to add or revise. We'll let him tell the story, though, starting with this new introduction.

Hard to believe that over four years have passed since Apple rocked the NLE landscape with its radical transformation of Final Cut Pro. Since then, a lot has happened. Other big vendors such as Adobe and Avid have seriously stepped up the quality of their offerings; even Blackmagic Design is getting into the NLE game. Now more than ever, it’s a level playing field - editors have more choice in tools to fit their editing style, and competition is making those tools better and better. It’s a very exciting time in the industry.

When it first launched, FCPX’s editing approach was a source of intense debate. And some of that debate continues at a less heated level. But as it’s matured and evolved, one point is clearly settled. There’s no question FCPX is a high quality, professional quality tool, as its recent use in the feature film, Focus, proves. FCPX is ready for the big leagues.

For me personally, the biggest surprise is FCPX is now a big part of my editing workflow. I love its tools for organizing footage. It’s possibly the best ingest, logging and organizing tool I’ve ever worked with. '>I wrote about the workflow here. (To be fair, I concede that “universal” was a poor word choice for for the title. I was very enthused.)

But as much as I enjoy organizing in FCPX, I still don’t edit with it. The Magnetic Timeline just doesn’t work for me, for the same reasons I wrote about four years ago. I’m not fighting The Magnetic Timeline, The Magnetic Timeline is fighting me! The debate over absolute/external frames-of-reference vs relative/hierarchical parent/child relationships as a way to represent media in time is alive and well.

Four years later, we’re almost half-way thru what Apple described as a 10-year roadmap for FCPX. Will The Magnetic Timeline ever change to accommodate editors like myself who prefer a more spatial editing style? My guess is probably not, but that ultimately it doesn’t matter. For editors who love cutting in FCPX, its perfectly fine and they’re having fun. For the rest of us, there are plenty of great options that continue to get better. That’s a win for everyone. And ironically, four years later, even that old horse FCP7 is still around, especially in the documentary scene where it continues to be used on Oscar winning films.

Final Cut Pro is dead. Long live Final Cut Pro!

David Lawrence, May 2015

With its June 21 release of Final Cut Pro X, Apple shocked the entire post-production industry. FCPX discards not only its own eleven-year history of development, but also decades of industry standards in both language and interface conventions for non-linear editing systems.

I set out to understand just exactly what Apple had done to a tool that for many of us, is the cornerstone of our livelihoods. The changes in FCPX are broad, deep and many. This article will focus on just one aspect of these changes -- the main NLE editing interface an editor uses for the bulk of their work -- the timeline.

Apple's new "magnetic timeline" is very different than anything that has come before it. Apple's strength as a market leader means that their new timeline paradigm will receive widespread attention and use. A user interface reflects the assumptions, priorities and values of its designer. How does the philosophy behind a tool's design determine how we're able to work? What does "better" mean in the context of usability?

I feel it's essential to examine these kinds of questions and try to understand Apple's changes with informed criticality as we decide whether to adopt or reject their new approach. Many of the missing parts in FCPX can and will be fixed with plug-ins and updates. But if Apple's fundamental design assumptions about editorial workflow don't work for you, it won't matter. You'll eventually switch to something else.

Disclaimer - What follows is my opinion only. I have no special inside knowledge or connections with Apple. I'm just calling it the way I see it, having thought about NLEs for a long time.

The Magnetic Timeline - What's the Paradigm?

Let's start with the basics -- stuff you already know but which bears repeating.

Let's start with Time.

Time is linear.

Our experience of time is linear.

We can subdivide it however we like, but our normal perception is that time always moves forward. This is hardwired into our bodies and brains.

Editing is the art of structuring media experience in time.

When we edit, what we're actually doing is making intentional, creative, decisions for every moment of the experience of our piece. We intentionally choose exactly what the viewer sees, hears, and consequently feels. Most importantly, we control how and when this happens. This precise sculpting of time-based experience is the essence of the art of editing.

In an NLE, the timeline is a fixed, spatial representation of time itself.

The beauty of the "open" timeline is that it gives editors unlimited flexibility in placing media - represented as objects - exactly where they want in the linear timestream. Objects are freely, precisely placed in time to create linear experience. It works exceptionally well. This is why the timeline metaphor has been in use since the invention of the NLE almost 25 years ago.

Tracks are layers of timelines dedicated to specific media types. They're a great organizing tool. An important thing to remember about tracks is that all tracks share a fixed frame-of-reference in regards to time.

The other important thing is that all tracks follow a common spatial model. The timeline is a direct, one to one mapping of spatial position to temporal event. When you look at a complex timeline at the wrap of a project, what you're seeing is an exact, crystal-clear 2D map of every creative decision you chose for every frame of your piece. It's a map of experience in time.

FCP 1-7 is designed around the "open timeline" paradigm. It has a fairly robust toolset for manipulating objects on the timeline(s). The tools aren't perfect, but overall they're very good. In my opinion, they just feel better than the tools in other systems. It's a matter of personal taste I suppose. The main thing is once internalized, they do the most important thing a digital tool can do - allow the clear expression of user intention and otherwise stay out of the way.

With FCPX, Apple introduces a fundamental change in the NLE timeline model - the "Magnetic Timeline". It's a whole new paradigm that changes how we edit! Tracks are gone! Clips are sequenced and synced with "connections." It's locked in ripple mode! I can see the gaps! And so on.

There's no in between -- you either love or hate this thing.

But what is it exactly? Why does it provoke such a visceral reaction in so many?

On the surface, there's nothing groundbreaking or even new about the magnetic timeline. As others have correctly pointed out, it's a 1V 2A fixed ripple mode timeline - with lots of other seemingly arbitrary constraints. So what?

But under the hood it's actually deeply radical. In FCPX, Apple has abstracted time away from space. The timeline is now a container-class object. It's no longer just a fixed spatial representation. The implications are huge. Once you wrap your head around it, a lot of things fall into place; things like the new language -- "Storylines" instead of "Timelines", the lack of tracks, even the visible gaps.

Apple is betting everything on a pure object model for media representation. They're building around an object and database driven architecture. The FCPX UI and toolset directly reflects this shift. It's radical. It's innovative, and as currently implemented, it's seriously flawed for advanced editors.

Time, Space, and One Clock To Rule Them All

One of the analogies I frequently see in the FCPX forums goes something like this -- "Using FCPX is like using a relational database as opposed to using a spreadsheet a la FCP7 and earlier. People having difficulty using FCPX are simply not getting the relational database model. They're stuck in the spreadsheet way of thinking."

While this analogy has factual basis, I think it's a mixed metaphor and misses the larger point:

FCPX is built around an object-oriented data model. FCPX uses a relational database to manage this data. Structured data objects in a relational database can be manipulated in very powerful and flexible ways. All of this is true and we see the potential of this throughout FCPX. Metadata and keyword tagging are powerful organizational features; but there's an inherent disconnect.

A relational database can have an infinite number of dimensions. It can store any type of data set in innumerable ways. But there's one Very Big Thing a relational database doesn't understand or even know about.


A relational database exists completely outside the dimension of time. In a relational database, all possible data relationships exist simultaneously in a timeless, abstract state. They have no perceptible human meaning until we use tools to call and display them.

In order to experience time-based data, we must play it. In order to represent time-based data on a computer screen, we must use space.

Human beings work with data and time very differently than computers do. I think this point is getting lost in much of the discussion of FCPX's interaction model.

While it's true FCPX uses a relational database foundation and metadata is a powerful, flexible way to organize, it's also true that humans don't process data or time like a computer. We use pattern, space and physical reference points to understand and navigate the world around us. This is wired into our bodies and this is why all NLEs use timelines.

Timelines give tangible, perceivable form to the abstract data and relationships held by a computer. Timelines allow us to perceive and manipulate time-based data in a way that makes physical and experiential sense.

FCPX introduces a radically different approach to the timeline interaction model. It replaces the familiar model with something that borrows many similar representational conventions, yet behaves very differently.

I'm convinced that any similarities between the old and new timeline models are fundamentally necessary. Yet Apple's newly added differences run counter to years of expectation in regard to the timeline's central frame-of-reference. This makes it unintuitive for many editors.

Frame-of-reference is key, and leads to a fundamental truth about the timeline:

There must be a Master Clock.

In any NLE:

There is always a Master Clock.
The Master Clock dictates absolute time.
The Master Clock is the master frame-of-reference for time.
The Master Clock must be represented in space.
This is where things get curious with FCPX. FCPX has changed the frame-of-reference for the master clock. FCPX changes the frame-of-reference from what we've used for decades - the sequence window, a fixed, external frame-of-reference defined by absolute spatial position -- to a container object inside the sequence window. Here's an illustration:

In FCPX the primary storyline container is the master clock.

This is why there can only be one primary storyline. This is why connected clips only connect to the primary storyline. In object terms, the primary storyline is the parent container for all media events in the project (sequence).

This change in itself is a big deal. It means that in FCPX, we edit the temporal frame-of-reference and constantly change its spatial foundation as we edit our piece.

This in itself is unusual. It's further complicated because FCPX's master clock has gravity. Locked in ripple mode, the primary storyline always pulls all contained objects to the temporal singularity of 00:00:00:00. Ripple is useful if you need help avoiding black gaps in your program, but it has a side effect of constantly changing the time position of everything else you're working on. This may or may not be a problem depending on what you're doing. Most NLE timelines do not ripple by default.

A simple exercise demonstrates how FCPX treats time in the project (sequence) window:

Drop a clip in the primary storyline. Hit shift-z (zoom to fit) so you can see the full clip. Use the blade tool to make a cut near the center of the clip. Use the trim tool to select only the head of the clip on the right. Now drag the selected head right and left to trim the clip head forward and backward. Keep your eye on the time indicator. Notice what happens to the timeline and where time is in the window space. Time is moving in space relative to the object being trimmed.

FCP7 Open Timeline

Try the same thing in FCP7. Use the ripple tool to simulate the FCPX trim mode (which is ripple only). Also try this with the regular trim tool.

The difference in how each version of FCP performs this function demonstrates how each version treats the master clock frame-of-reference.

In FCP7's open timeline, time is absolute in relation to the sequence window. Changes to any media objects on the open timeline affect the objects only. Time in space is constant.

In FCPX's magnetic timeline, time is always relative to 00:00:00:00 on the primary storyline. Depending on how you manipulate objects on the timeline, 00:00:00:00 can and will move in space. Time in space is variable.

FCPX's new interaction rules and behaviors are loaded with assumptions about how you should edit. Depending on your needs, they'll either help you or get in the way. But make no mistake. If you work in FCPX, you must follow them.

In the next part of this article, I'll look at the rules that govern object and timeline behaviors in FCPX.


While working on the second part of this article, several threads in the FCPX Debate forum went into great depth on the issues I intended to cover. These engaging conversations offer a broad range of thoughtful perspectives and examples of the workflow implications of FCPX's rules, behaviors and assumptions. I encourage you to read and join in with your thoughts.

NLEs, DAWs, Tracks and Audio-centric Workflows -- Continuing the Conversation...

The Open Timeline and Spatial Workflows -- An Example

The Position Tool Does Not Disable Ripple Mode -- Here's Why

The Open Timeline and Spatial Workflows -- Another Example

About David H. Lawrence