In Features, Issues

Jamie Stuart walks us through how he used Final Cut Studio 2 to make his latest short film.


I‘ve maintained for the past half-dozen years that the most significant event in the history of DIY filmmaking has been the introduction of Final Cut Pro. While FCP was preceded by Adobe Premiere, the former propitiously caught the zeitgeist of Apple‘s reemergence and never looked back. Before the availability of consumer-editing software, even if you shot on Mini DV, you still needed to rent an Avid suite and also probably hire somebody trained to use it. With the consumer systems, for the first time an aspiring filmmaker could own the entire production and post processes and chop costs down to near nothing (not counting the software prices). Most noteworthy, consumer-editing software bridged the new digital-shooting formats to what would be the most revolutionary means of distribution for filmed entertainment: the Internet.

My first experience with FCP came at the end of 2001. Midway through shooting a short film on 16mm with a planned edit on a Steenbeck flatbed, rain forced me to cancel some exteriors and reschedule the remainder of the production. Under a tight deadline, and lacking the funds to finish the project as I‘d intended, I gave way and completed the shoot on Mini DV. After installing a copy of FCP2 on my PowerBook for the edit, I discovered it to be so intuitive that, without any real understanding of its functions, I was still able to apply traditional editing techniques with full success — and easily made my deadline. Subsequent experience with the Avid, which is based on archaic procedures that it‘s maintained over generations, further illuminated FCP‘s intuitiveness.

Six years — and six upgrades — later, FCP is now part of a suite of programs named Final Cut Studio. Bundled with an evolved version of the classic editing software, there is now Motion (compositing/motion graphics), LiveType (animated text), Compressor (video files), DVD Studio Pro (DVD authoring), Soundtrack Pro (sound editing) and the brand new Color (color correction).

One of the conundrums about the increasingly complex series of applications FCS hosts is that in its pursuit of the professional market, it has become less accessible to the average consumer. FCP could never have competed head-on with Avid‘s industry dominance initially, so it pulled a MacArthur/Keeler and “hit ‘em where they ain‘t.” Although the consumer market is its base, FCS is actually beyond the capabilities of the average consumer at this point. Because of this, Apple smartly offers Final Cut Express — a less muscular version of the editing program — for the casual user. Then again, they didn‘t call it Final Cut Pro without good reason.

With FCS2 now on the market, I decided to test-drive the package for Filmmaker. The first decision we made was that to truly explore the software, it should be applied to an actual project. Furthermore, that project should be shot on HD. Time constraints meant that I would only have a week and a half to prepare, shoot and start editing before my review would meet its deadline. The story concept was simple: a guy calls a girl he likes, and then everything goes to hell. This idea would be complicated by an immense amount of VFX compositing — something that would inherently require multiple apps from the suite.

Since time and budget were of the highest priority (as always), I decided to shoot the short with Panasonic‘s HVX200 in 720P. Having used the DVX100A for the past three years, I figured I‘d at least be somewhat familiar with the camera‘s interface. Also, I liked the fact that P2 cards would make the entire production tapeless, saving a great deal of time in the editing process.

After a hectic week of preproduction that allowed me to storyboard only half the short, I shot for one full day, logging over 250 individual video files. Although it took me a while to figure out how best to transfer the P2 MXF files to my MacBook Pro (including downloading a driver), once I knew what to do, it was exceedingly simple. Over the past year or so, P2 support has grown from requiring third-party apps to FCP‘s offering an “Import P2” option to what is now full dedication. All I had to do was connect the camera via FireWire, then choose Log and Transfer from the File menu. A window immediately opened and listed every clip on the P2 cards, along with thumbnails; I could even preview the clips if I wanted. To transfer, all I had to do was click and drag the files into a drop zone, and then FCP immediately downloaded and translated everything from MXF to QuickTime-encoded DVCPRO-HD.

In an interesting turn of events, the climactic scenes for the short were designed to take place at Hell Gate Bridge in Queens, the same location I was at when rain sealed my digital fate in 2001. In a roadblock that could‘ve equaled that rain delay, a few shots were accidentally deleted toward the end. But because I was shooting tapeless digital and downloading to my computer on the spot, I quickly reshot what had been lost without much downtime.

At the end of the shooting day, with all the footage already on my hard drive, I had assembled a show reel of a few shots and even begun a rough-cut edit.

The first application from FCS2 that I dealt with in post, quite obviously, was Final Cut Pro 6. The interface was basically the same as it had been in the previous version, only now I noticed little polishes. For instance, in the past, if I‘d started a project and tried to drop a clip onto the timeline but the timeline settings were different from those of the video, a red line appeared, indicating that the clip needed to be rendered. Now a pop-up window appears informing me of the discrepancy and asking if I‘d like the timeline changed to match the video. If I click “yes,” the settings are automatically changed. Also, in previous versions, if I‘d wanted to scroll through a clip, unless I had my timeline at its largest size I could never get it to go one frame at a time; it always went in two- or three-frame increments. This is no longer an issue.

Where FCP really shines is in its compatibility with the rest of the suite. Individual clips or sequences can be sent back and forth from one app to another without having to shut anything down. If I need to apply some compositing to a shot, I simply highlight it on the timeline and then send it to Motion. Motion immediately opens with that clip already loaded — and once I‘ve finished my alterations, I save the file and export the video. I then go back to FCP, which is still open, and the original clip I highlighted has already been replaced by the new version. A quick render completes the process.

Speaking of Motion, this program turned out to be the biggest surprise for me. Although I‘d had it with the two previous versions, I never used it for anything; I used After Effects for compositing, and as Motion was promoted primarily for its use in commercial-style motion graphics, it just didn‘t interest me. Although I now own Shake, which is also designed for compatibility with FCP, I decided to stick to FCS as much as possible.

So far I‘ve been using Motion for all my compositing — from greenscreen keying to 3-D key-frame animation — with incredible ease. Motion is basically Apple‘s answer to After Effects, though without After Effects‘ years of plug-in additions. For basic compositing needs, it offers a library of generators and filters as well as customizable window options that allow me to access the layers or timeline or library or inspector. Unlike a node-based app like Shake, which is still much more sophisticated, Motion is incredibly intuitive; anybody who‘s used After Effects will feel right at home.

I‘ve already blocked out shots with as many as 30 animated layers, experiencing no problems at all. And because of its compatibility, I can do some compositing, send it to FCP and then, if I need to make some changes, I just go back and forth between the two programs till I‘m happy with the result.

Two other apps in FCS2 that I‘ve briefly used so far, Compressor and Soundtrack Pro, have undergone aesthetic face-lifts. Compressor is now a full-screen app that works similarly to the Log and Transfer window in FCP — just click, drag and drop. One noticeable difference is in the DVD options; previously, when burning a DVD MPEG-2, sound options were available to create Dolby or AIFF tracks. Dolby is the only choice now. (Since DVDs must maintain sound consistency, I assume if you‘re using DVD Studio Pro, for instance, you‘ll have to convert any menu music to Dolby.)

Soundtrack Pro, meanwhile, has rearranged its interface to allow for greater accessibility of files and features. The mixer is readily available without having to open a pop-up, and functions are available for multitrack video editing. And for those (like me) who occasionally dive into its library of Foley sounds, the number of choices has been greatly increased. Like Motion, Soundtrack Pro has the “send to” function from FCP. In earlier versions, I recall having to create video files and sound files and then importing them for editorial. Everything has been integrated for this version.

The biggest buzz around FCS2 has been the inclusion of a new program, Color. Color, at least at this point in my dealings, is possibly the least accessible part of the suite to the uninitiated. Ever since Final Cut Pro 3, I‘ve been using the three-wheel color corrector — I‘ve used it to adjust virtually every shot of the 60 or so shorts I‘ve made in the past three years. I‘m finding that during the picture edit, the three-wheel is perfect for basic tonal and color corrections. Color doesn‘t come into play until I‘m further along in post.

Color is an offspring of Shake and maintains Shake‘s window aesthetic of brown/gray — it doesn‘t look or feel like a traditional Apple app. It also maintains Shake‘s node-based system on its Color-FX room, which might be confusing to users more familiar with layer-based programs. These two aspects, along with its general complexity, are major demonstrations that FCS2 isn‘t interested in the average consumer anymore. The suite is purely for professionals who can navigate not just convoluted programs but programs that use various systems and interfaces.

Furthermore, upon my initial tests, Color is really designed for use with HD. Mini DV, with its lower resolution, can‘t handle the FX filters such as bleach bypass and sepia — the image completely breaks up or gets smothered. Applying the same FX to high-res material, however, can meet with some exquisite results.

The Color workflow consists of a series of rooms — Setup, Primary In, Secondaries, Geometry, etc. — each affecting the image on different levels and building upon the preceding room. For instance, you‘ll start by choosing a shot to correct, then you‘ll add initial tonal gradations, then pinpoint specific areas with shapes or an eyedropper — and so on. Once you‘ve brought your entire sequence through the rooms and made your alterations, you send it back to FCP.

From my initial experiments, I‘m already dreading becoming addicted to Color. I can easily see myself tweaking and key-framing tons of adjustments within various shots just like I‘m doing now with all the minor digital alterations I‘m making in Motion.

One other note regarding Color: it‘s designed for dual-monitor use. You can use it fine on a MacBook Pro, but the windows get cropped slightly. If you have a true edit setup, simply turn on the dual screen mode, and you‘re in business: 3D charts on one side, shots and rooms on the other.

The two other main programs of FCS2 are DVD Studio Pro and LiveType. I‘ve used DVD Studio Pro plenty in the past, but, since it represents the final stage of filmmaking, making copies for distribution, I haven‘t had much use for the latest version just yet. That said, working with the last two installments was a lot of fun, so I have no reason to think this one won‘t be.

LiveType, on the other hand, is essentially useless at this point. As a stand-alone, I‘m not sure Apple should continue developing it. Everything LiveType can do can also be done in Motion, and with much greater options. Motion also accesses LiveType‘s library of fonts and FX. When two programs are offering the same tools and one is a better program, just kill the lesser and cannibalize it for the other.

And so, here I am. In the middle of postproduction on a short film I‘m really proud of. I‘m surrounded by a great software suite that not only meets my requirements but also, because of its diversity, keeps suggesting new avenues and techniques. My 2001 short was about entering the world of digital. This new one is about total immersion and moving up to HD.

Ultimately, I think, if you‘re still shooting standard Mini DV and own a previous version of FCP or the FCS suite, upgrading to FCS2 probably isn‘t a complete necessity. If you‘re stepping into HD, then I‘d easily recommend investing in the new system — the range of options will offer you a finished product at a competitive advantage. Just make sure you have enough available disk space — the entire suite of programs takes up an estimated 45GB of space. That can be broken up, so that the programs are on your computer but the plug-ins and libraries are on an external drive.

I‘m constantly discovering new things during this crash course. The compatibility of the programs has allowed me to work at an unbelievable level of speed. By the time you read this my new short will be complete and ready for its premiere. It will be the true critique of Final Cut Studio 2.

See Jamie Stuart‘s short at


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