Taking it to Post

When Apple introduced Final Cut Pro in April 1999, a friendly debate concerning its suitability for professional projects, especially as compared to Avid Media Composer, sprang up among editors around the world. With the introduction of FCP 3 in December 2001, that debate became archaic. Today, any discussion about Avid versus FCP concerns not whether FCP makes the cut (pardon the pun), but rather what sorts of programs are best suited to its strengths.
November 1, 2002

When Apple introduced Final Cut Pro in April 1999, a friendly debate concerning its suitability for professional projects, especially as compared to Avid Media Composer, sprang up among editors around the world. With the introduction of FCP 3 in December 2001, that debate became archaic. Today, any discussion about Avid versus FCP concerns not whether FCP makes the cut (pardon the pun), but rather what sorts of programs are best suited to its strengths.

The latter debate is a more constructive one, but speaking with film editors about the pros and cons of Avid’s non-linear editing (NLE) systems and Final Cut Pro is a lot like asking PC and Mac users to objectively compare their respective interfaces – each side hesitates to admit the weakness of its preferred system. Nonetheless, amid the language of devotion, a few common complaints and words of advice have surfaced.

Producers should note that the discussion has been complicated by the introduction in June 2002 of Avid Xpress DV 3.5, a US$1,700 software package that can run on Mac OS X and Windows XP, and is designed to challenge FCP’s hold on the low-cost market. Filmmakers say it’s still too early to reach a consensus on this new addition to the Avid lineup, but those who have dabbled with the application argue it’s an excellent option for cost-minded editors interested in staying with the Avid family.

Cash strapped?

The most obvious point of comparison between Avid’s Media Composer – the industry standard – and Apple’s Final Cut Pro is the price. Media Composer models start at $12,000, but climb to $70,000 for advanced models such as Media Composer 9000. By contrast, FCP 3 software is about $1,000. The application is compatible with both Mac OS 9 and OS X, and needs a G4 processor to run it. Apple models start at about $1,700 for the Power Mac G4, a desktop model, and $2,500 for the portable Titanium PowerBook G4.

As most doc-makers know, price alone can determine which system a filmmaker uses. Josef Nyberg is a senior editor at Scandinature, a prodco in Karlstad, Sweden. He has worked on an Avid for close to 10 years, slicing such productions as Viking Voyages and Lion of the Americas. But, when Swedish indie prodco Riot Reel asked Nyberg to edit its upcoming doc on teenage lesbians, economics dictated he switch to FCP. ‘They couldn’t afford the Media Composer system,’ he explains.

Michael Cross, founder of Cross Films in Seattle, U.S., also started on an Avid, but switched to FCP as soon as it was introduced. ‘The Avid is an amazing tool, but it’s overpriced,’ says Cross, who teaches FCP at Seattle’s 911 Media Arts Center and recently cut the 52-minute doc The Crystal Mountain, about preserving the ancient texts of Nepal. ‘If I were to recommend a [NLE] system to somebody that didn’t already have one, I would by far recommend getting an Apple and Final Cut.’

Nyberg agrees that FCP is a good buy: ‘It’s a very good tool for less established filmmakers who can’t afford a bigger system. You definitely get your money’s worth both on the cheaper Avid system and on Final Cut Pro.’ But, he cautions that up-front costs shouldn’t be a producer’s only concern. ‘My costs are a lot higher when I’m working on a cheaper system, because the reliability is so much better on the more expensive system,’ he explains. ‘You never have any crashes or need to reconstruct after crashes when you’re working on Media Composer. Also, I’ve worked so long on Media Composer that I don’t have to think about how to technically approach the editing system, I do it automatically. When I’m working on a cheaper system, I constantly have to find work-arounds, which takes my focus away from the creative process.’

Easy come…

One of Nyberg’s chief complaints about FCP concerns the system’s ability to help editors manage media. ‘It’s very complicated compared to Media Composer,’ he notes.

Nyberg is not alone in his frustration. ‘One of the best parts of the Avid system, and what Final Cut lacks, is good media management,’ contends Andrew Gersh, founder of Gershpost in Berkeley, U.S. Gersh is familiar with both FCP and Avid, but most of his experience is on the Avid. He was supervising editor at PBS’s Boston-based outlet WGBH (which uses Avids) until 1993, and he continues to freelance for the pubcaster’s ‘Frontline’ and ‘Nova’ strands, in addition to working with indie producers.

‘For an hour-long doc there can be 150 source tapes, a bunch of which are being digitized at the beginning, because you don’t know what portions you’re going to end up using for the final show,’ he explains. ‘As production goes on and you start to winnow material down, it’s good to be able to save what you want to use and get rid of other stuff, to save on drive space. This is especially true if you’re working on a lower-budget production and you only have a certain amount of space.

‘Avid is superb at saving just the media you’re working with and getting rid of the rest. For example, if you digitize a 20-minute clip and you’re only using 30 seconds of it in your show, Avid can grab that 30 seconds and save it somewhere else and then erase the 20 minutes, opening up that space for other use,’ Gersh continues. ‘Once you digitize something on Final Cut you’re stuck with it for the whole production and that can get really expensive. You can consolidate it manually, but you can’t do it automatically. If you have to do that for 100 different clips, it becomes time-consuming. It’s those types of issues that for long-form productions, I find the Avid is great.’

Even time-tested supporters of FCP cite media management as the program’s main weakness. But many, such as Cross, don’t see it as a problem that’s big enough to deter filmmakers from using FCP for long-form projects. ‘Final Cut demands that you be more precise and involved with your logging,’ he explains. ‘It requires more organization up front, but it allows you to know your material better. That’s an advantage.’

Fitting the Format

Media Composer, Avid Xpress DV and FCP can all edit material originated on any format, as long as a filmmaker has access to a telecine. Says Gersh, ‘Once the material is in [the NLE system], you never think about what it was shot on. You just need to be able to work on it quickly and easily.’

Still, experienced editors tend to recommend sticking with Media Composer for analog formats, and using FCP or Avid Xpress DV for digital media. Explains Gersh, ‘When you are recording video on a DV format, it’s being recorded digitally. The computer can easily accept that information. But once you start dealing with analog, you either need separate hardware, or your computer, to digitize the information. So, if you’re shooting on DV, you can just have a smaller, cheaper computer without all the external hardware.’

Thomas Strodel, CEO of 24fps Productions in New York, U.S., agrees: ‘The Avid system is more of a standard-definition editing system out of the box, whereas Final Cut Pro is more of a DV system.’ Strodel, who presents himself as a producer first and an editor second, works on FCP and is presently putting together the pilot episode of an hd cooking series.

‘The trick with HD is you first convert your tapes to mini DV. You then edit in mini DV, export an EDL [edit decision list], then take that to a post house that can do an online hd edit. They’re now down to $700 an hour.’

Filmmakers interested in FCP for editing film and 24P HD video need to pair FCP with an application such as Apple’s Cinema Tools. Priced at about $1,000, Cinema Tools tracks the relationship between the original camera negatives and the video established in the telecine logs, and then spits out an EDL.

Filmmakers using analog formats with FCP also need to figure out which hard drive best supports their chosen medium, says Cross. ‘You can get as professional a quality as you need out of Final Cut, but you need to invest in the hardware required to use those formats,’ he explains. ‘If you’re using Beta SP, for example, you want to think about investing in an analog capture card, which can better support that kind of media. The quality of the Beta SP requires a higher data rate, and an internal hard drive won’t support it. But, as far as scalability, Final Cut can go as high end as you need to get.’

Smoother with age

Avid introduced the Avid 1/Media Composer in 1989. Since then, it has incorporated feedback on the design, ironing out many of the wrinkles in the operating system and adding features to enhance work flow. One capability editors point to that demonstrates Media Composer’s maturity is how it organizes footage from multiple cameras.

A classic setup for taped interviews, explains Gersh, is to have one camera trained on the interview subject and another focused on the interviewer. ‘Media Composer basically links those two clips so that they act as one ‘group clip,” he continues. ‘That means you don’t have to deal with two different clips. Once you group them, you just switch between the interviewer and the interviewee. You could edit without that feature, but it would be a lot more time-consuming and tedious.’

FCP doesn’t have a specific function for handling the same footage from multiple cameras, but Cross, like Gersh, says it is possible, although it takes more effort. ‘I’ve done multi-camera shows before [on FCP], and I designated each its own video track. You have to make a splice and shorten one of the shots on the above track, so you can see down below on one of the lower tracks to view another angle. That worked just great.’

Avid also enables several editors to work simultaneously on the same media, a setup Avid has dubbed ‘Unity’. For projects with big budgets, a lot of footage and tight deadlines, such as reality series, the ‘Avid Unity environment’ can make life in the editing room more efficient.

Nyberg acknowledges that Unity can save time, but both he and Gersh say for doc work, it’s rarely an issue. ‘If you buy a couple copies of Final Cut Pro or DV Xpress and everyone has their own copies of digitized media, that’s probably cheaper than setting up one of these systems where everyone can share stuff,’ says Gersh. Avid Unity MediaNetwork v3.0 starts at $55,000.

Despite their quirks and differences, Avid and FCP essentially complete the same task – they make it possible to edit and polish a project. So too do the many other NLE systems flooding the market. Most editors, therefore, echo the same words of wisdom as filmmakers looking to invest in an editing system – you get what you pay for. ‘It didn’t used to be that way, because Avid had a monopoly,’ adds Gersh. It doesn’t anymore.

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