FINAL CUT STUDIO. PHOTO COURTESY OF APPLE.
The technological transformation of the motion picture stretching over the past decade has pretty much reached its standardized plateau. All of the pieces are now in place. The major advancements have been made. It's now just a matter of refinement and adjustment.
A perfect example of this State of the Union is Apple's Final Cut Studio, the latest version of its postproduction software package. It's not a major upgrade in the sense that Version 4 (first bundle) or Final Cut Suite 2 (addition of Color) were — it's simply a refinement of what already existed.
To test Final Cut Studio, I decided it made the most sense to follow the same approach as I did two years ago with FCS2 — by creating a short film and using that experience as the spine for my reactions.
After torturing myself for a couple of weeks about what to shoot, I decided to use the generational zeitgeist as an inspiration: The summer was concluding, and with it, '80s icons Michael Jackson and John Hughes had just died. I took a breath of that air and exhaled it against the recession and came up with a scenario that pits a late-twenties woman struggling over the course of one day as she tries to claim her unemployment insurance. The title became Isn't She?... as a reference to The Psychedelic Furs' "Pretty in Pink": "Pretty in pink; isn't she?..." I banged out the script over a weekend on my iPhone using the Screenplay app.
Although I'd planned to take my time, prep it properly and do storyboards, a scheduling conflict forced me to rush intro production. I promptly ran myself into the ground, fell sick and got only part of it shot. This forced me to delay the remainder of the shoot by nearly a month. And this turned out to be a good thing.
As I began sifting through the pieces of the rushed partial shoot, I not only had the opportunity to make subtle tweaks to the footage using Motion (I rotated by 1 percent several shots I thought were off-kilter and painted in the borders), but the extra brain-souping allowed for me to augment what was initially intended to be a scaled down Cameron Crowe/John Hughes-style reality-based comedy into something a little more eccentric. And this is where having Final Cut Studio came into play.
You see, what's great about the current technological plateau is that the tools exist at all levels of the financial and creative spectrum for filmmakers to do whatever they want. They can use these tools in a maximalist approach (think Avatar or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ) or they can be used in miniature (i.e., mumblecore). It's freedom.
My approach usually winds up trying to be maximalist on minimalist budgets. I like to use everything in the Studio: Final Cut Pro (editing), Motion (compositing), Soundtrack Pro (sound design), Color (color correction), Compressor (file mastering), DVD Studio Pro (DVD samples).
The creative breakthrough I had on this project involved jettisoning several planned montages that would've taken time to shoot in favor of five 3-D animated sequences. Using Motion, I easily got started designing these sections on my laptop during the shooting hiatus. And, as I was able to do this myself at home, upon seeing the initial results, I knew the entire short's aesthetic had been irrevocably altered.
That said, I'm not using Apple's new software suite any differently than I already was. Most of the major improvements have come in areas I don't really have much use for as of now: Final Cut Pro has added greater flexibility with notemaking (I like to memorize), speed-ramping (I like to shoot 60 fps for slow-mo) and even a new interface that allows the playback of a FCP timeline over the Internet using iChat (which I saw demonstrated at Apple's New York event); Soundtrack Pro makes it easier to match sound levels between clips, among other things (which will probably come in handy later); and Motion has new features for adding reflections, drop shadows and 3-D focus pulls (I've only needed the drop shadow so far). Also, Compressor has made it easier to create QuickTime templates, but I'm still a stickler for doing things manually — and in doing a test using MPEG-4, my preferred codec, I was unhappy with Compressor's results and have instead continued to use the QuickTime Conversion option in FCP.
Regarding the last bit about QuickTime codecs, unless a client specifically requests H.264, I refuse to use it for anything. H.264 bleaches and up-gains the picture. It looks terrible. And considering I put a lot of time into correcting my images, I want an accurate representation of my work, even if it's only being seen in a small online window. For my personal online work I only use MPEG-4.
As of writing this review, I'm still stuck waiting for the second leg of the short's shoot and final post work. My ultimate assessment of Final Cut Studio is that if you have Final Cut Suite 2, it's not a necessity — it's a nice polish, but it's not an imperative investment. However if you're still working on an earlier version than FCS2, then, at a reduced price of $999, it's a steal.