What Does Apple’s Final Cut Pro X Mean for Sports Production?

After alienating nearly the entire professional postproduction community with the release of Final Cut Pro X last summer, Apple appeared to claw its way back into the pro market last month with a series of updates to the nonlinear-editing software.

Apple’s total redesign of Final Cut Pro threw the professional-editing community for a loop, leaving many questions going into NAB.

Although the updates seem to be a sign that Apple will continue to enhance the professional capabilities of Final Cut Pro X (FCPX), serious questions remain: How will pro editors react to the radically revamped Final Cut Pro interface? Is it too late to salvage Apple’s reputation in the pro-editing world? And, most important for sports-production professionals, how will this affect the world of sports television?

“Apple seems to be on the right track in terms of getting the features integrated into the software that sports [production professionals] need,” says NFL Network Postproduction Operations Manager Brad Boim. “But they are playing catch-up with themselves. That’s the frustrating part.”

Genesis: The Release of Final Cut Pro X
Just before Apple unveiled FCPX at NAB last April, many pro editors assumed that the new iteration would be an updated take on an old favorite, Final Cut Pro 7 (FCP7). After all, Final Cut — rivaled by Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro, and Quantel’s high-end systems — had held a sizable chunk of the pro market for more than a decade.

Instead, Apple took FCP7 off the market (it was made available again in September) and revealed that FCPX was a wholly rebuilt program based on a 64-bit architecture and featuring an entirely new user interface unfamiliar to long-time Final Cut users. Even more upsetting was the elimination of core elements essential to the professional postproduction process: chiefly multicamera editing, XML support, broadcast monitoring, and interoperability with FCP7 to import archival projects.

“When [FCPX was first released], it was concerning in a number of ways,” says Boim, who runs a 100% Final Cut Pro-based operation at his Culver City, CA, facility. “Apple initially pulled [FCP7] off the shelves, so we were worried about how we would handle any short-term expansion, and we were obviously worried about any long-term expansion because of the uncertainty that X created.”

Exodus: The Pro Market Flees
The perception was that Apple had abandoned the professional-postproduction market, choosing instead to focus on the consumer sector, where the company has generated billions of dollars in profit through sales of its smartphones, tablets, media players, and Mac computers. Many professionals disdainfully began to refer to the stripped-down FCPX as “iMovie Pro,” saying it was little better than Apple’s less sophisticated consumer-targeted editing software.

“You can’t fault Apple for their decisions,” Bunim/Murray Productions VP of Postproduction Mark Raudonis said at SVG’s Sports Entertainment Production Summit in January. Just after the New Year, Bunim-Murray announced that it will switch all its postproduction facilities from Apple to Avid gear. “They aimed Final Cut X at exactly the audience they wanted. We just don’t happen to be that audience.”

Bunim-Murray was not alone. Several Final Cut-based production facilities — both inside and outside the sports world — began to seek out alternatives. And Avid, which already held the largest piece of the broadcast-market pie, has been happy to oblige, offering Final Cut users a discounted price tag of $1,500 on Media Composer 6.

“Avid editing systems and production workflow solutions are [already] in use by many broadcast, league, and team pros, but we certainly see a growing opportunity,” says Jim Frantzreb, senior market segment manager, Media Enterprise, Avid Technology. “[Today,] we see more people involved with sports-video production open to learning about different tools and workflow, and we are certainly having discussions now that may not have taken place six months ago.”

Revelation: Apple Unveils Software Updates
But just as it seemed like Apple had bolted on the pro market entirely, the announcement of FCPX version 10.0.3 came along at the end of January. Although the revamped user interface remained, the new version included sorely needed updates that put FCPX back in the pro-editing conversation.

Added features include multicam editing that automatically syncs up to 64 angles of video, enhanced XML allowing interoperability with third-party apps (including one enabling import of FCP7 projects into FCPX), broadcast monitoring via Intel’s Thunderbolt I/O devices and PCIe cards (in beta version), and advanced chroma keying.

“I think it’s getting there but still has some work to do,” says Mitch Jacobson, multicam editing specialist and owner of Category-5 Studios. “This is a total reset and a different way of thinking, but Apple is standing by this [program] as their direction for the next 10 years. The interface is very different, but once people start to see the power that this system has to offer, I believe they are going to start to embrace it more.”

The most notable enhancement for sports production is the multicam-editing feature, without which FCPX would be basically irrelevant to the broadcast market. The latest version automatically syncs clips from multiple shoots using audio waveforms, time and date, or timecode to create a Multicam Clip with up to 64 angles of video, which can include mixed formats, frame sizes, and frame rates.

“I think it’s the best multicam option on the market right now,” says Jacobson, who has edited everything from Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney concerts to MLB and NFL specials for Fox Sports. “That might change as other companies adapt their software leading up to NAB, but right now, [FCPX’s] new multicam does things that the others simply can’t do.”

Version 10.0.3 also offers enhanced XML, allowing interchange with third-party applications in what Apple is calling the “Final Cut Pro X ecosystem.” The range of FCPX-friendly products includes ubiquitous XML-compatible software, such as DaVinci Resolve (color correction) and CatDV (media-asset management), and 7toX, the new app from Intelligence Assistance that uses XML to import FCP7 projects into FCPX.

“You have to collaborate in almost any [postproduction workflow], and you have to have some way of actually exchanging the project,” says Jacobson. “When [FCPX] first came out, you couldn’t do that. It’s like having a hammer without a head. We simply couldn’t do our jobs or share media. That issue has now been corrected.”

Broadcast monitoring in FCPX, currently in beta testing, allows users to connect to waveform displays and calibrated, high-quality monitors to ensure that projects meet broadcast specifications. FCPX supports A/V monitoring through Thunderbolt I/O devices (available from AJA Video Systems, Blackmagic Design, and Matrox) and through third-party PCIe cards.

“As pros, we couldn’t even monitor our program,” says Jacobson. “But now that they have AJA, Blackmagic, and Matrox onboard, most of us can still use the original infrastructure in terms of monitors and cards.”

The Resurrection: Will FCPX v10.0.3 Have a Place in Sports TV?
The updates in Apple’s latest version of FCP have quelled the fears of many in the professional-editing world, but questions remain.

Sources at multiple major sports networks/departments acknowledge that 10.0.3 is a substantial upgrade over the original FCPX release in terms of their editorial needs. However, all of them say they will hold judgment until they can evaluate how FCPX would function within their overall infrastructure.

Says Boim, “It looks like a really solid update that incorporates features that clearly weren’t there and absolutely have to be there before you would even consider using this in a professional-sports environment. That said, we have a massive operation over here and would have to evaluate it from an operational standpoint.”

NFL Network’s facility is based on an Apple Xsan storage network and Build4Media’s FORK production-automation system. Boim would like to know more about FCPX’s ability to integrate with these elements before it can even be considered as an alternative to the network’s current FCP7-based workflow.

“I think the offseason will give me an opportunity to get a copy of this software and spend some time evaluating the operational side of it,” he says, seconding a sentiment expressed by several other sources coming off a busy football season. “Our engineering group would then have to look at it as far as integrating it into a network environment.”

The Prophecy: Wait and See at NAB
It is clear now that FCPX should not be considered the next step in the evolution of FCP7 but rather as an entirely new submission to the nonlinear-editing-system market. It may be unfamiliar to veteran Final Cut editors, but X remains a powerful new option with a 64-bit architecture that allows the system to make use of more than 4GB of RAM (at a cost of just $300).

Nonetheless, Apple will essentially have to start from scratch in winning over the professional market.

“This is a total reset; they have forced us to rethink the way we work, which is exactly what Apple is known for doing,” says Jacobson. “If you look back 10 years ago when Final Cut first came out, they did the exact same thing. They came in and shook up the market. It took a long time for them to win everyone over, and I think that will be the case again with [FCPX].”

Although many see FCPX as a powerful product still in its infancy with room to grow, many others have already chosen a Final Cut-less path.

“The problem with making a general statement about FCPX is that everyone’s workflow and expectations are different; one size doesn’t fit all,” says Raudonis. “For FCP7, though, the suite was so feature filled and deep in capabilities that one size did fit all.  That’s not the case with X.

“[Apple has] intentionally streamlined many of the features and capabilities to the point where certain workflows are no longer optimum with that program,” he continues. “That is what has many people up in arms about X.”

It is far too early to tell whether Final Cut Pro X has a future in the professional market or if Apple has indeed elected to devote its postproduction efforts to the consumer community. But one thing is certain: all the controversy is going to make for a very interesting postproduction scene at the NAB show in Las Vegas in April.

“[FCPX] shook everything up, and now the three A’s — Apple, Adobe, and Avid — are all scrambling to gain market share,” says Jacobson. “Many have already lost their faith in Apple and feel betrayed; that loyalty is very hard to get back. That said, this is a very powerful system that has a lot of promise. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to NAB.”

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