“Final Cut Pro: The New Class”

I get to be a guest again tomorrow on my favorite podcast, to talk with Grubes and DanBenj about Timothy Dalton’s Bond and Final Cut Pro X. So I’ve taken the time to prepare some of my thoughts on what’s happening with FCP, why the kerfuffle, and why Tim Dalton may very well have been the fourth or fifth best Bond. Here are those thoughts, loosely collected. In fact, here’s my favorite part, to entice you to read past the boring bits at the beginning:

Final Cut Pro is like a soap opera and Apple is the network. You’ve had a character, let’s say Luke and Laura, who’ve been around, developing their storyline and their romance for a decade. The show’s viewers are heavily invested in Luke and Laura. But the network decides that Luke and Laura represent an old, outmoded character type, and that the new way is young, hip, lean…

First, to address the most direct question which is based on an assumption that this has indeed gone badly: Why did Apple screw A) up so badly and B) over so many of their devoted users? When Apple makes a move like this, it’s always a mistake to assume it was poorly thought-out. Instead, assume that there are many, many smart people on the team responsible for this product, people who have likely been obsessing over it for many years. Assume that there is a roadmap many years long in either direction. Assume that at least most of the backlash over the release of Final Cut Pro X was anticipated, and that Apple probably believes quite firmly they have in mind the best interests not only of the editors who use their software, but also of the medium as a whole. It’s not hyperbole to say that Apple writes history with their products. So let’s take it as read that some interesting thought has gone into this process.

Now. Why would they do this? A few possible answers. One assumption is that Apple was just trying stuff out. Throwing spitballs, as it were. Stabbing in the dark, like a bunch of dummies. With a history of stopping and restarting on iMovie as the experimental testbed of the non-linear editing paradigm shift, maybe they felt they’d finally settled on something with potential—whether or not this is true is open for debate, but it sure doesn’t look like it. 

But let’s assume that Apple is not a bunch of dummies, and that there’s actually a plan. Let’s assume that Apple has had a vested interest in being a core part of how people collect video memories—think of the hub solution of the late 90s when iMovie made its first appearance. At that point, it was imperative that iMovie resemble what all NLEs had looked like to date, in order to A) establish a precedent, that it could begin to match the capability of an NLE, B) establish credibility, C) represent a lightweight conduit for the evolution of video editing as we know it. They had to establish this so they could then tweak it, because the plan was to tweak FCP from the very beginning. iMovie as Trojan horse. They’ve now felt like, after a few iterations on the revolution of video editing, they’ve nailed it and can translate the evolution to the established “pro” realm. This seems to me and all pros like a premature move. But why would Apple make this move now, rather than holding off til’ iMovie has actually established itself? Are they fooling themselves into thinking that the world has embraced iMovie? Or do they have every reason to jumpstart this transition now, by incentivizing pro editors and amateurs alike by cutting the cost of entry to $300 and going for the release?

Has Apple done this because they wanted to dominate the pro editing market? Why would they do that? Well, to sell hardware, I guess. But why else? How’s this: to sell content. I will speculate that Final Cut Pro has just ceased to be about the craft of editing because Apple has little interest in the craft of editing. I will argue that Apple has a giant interest in the craft of distributing, of publishing. This is where it aims to enable an entirely new market of content built on its new infrastructure. YouTube is a distribution platform that has changed the world by changing the face of media by changing the mechanisms for distribution. Apple aims to do the same by positioning itself as the de facto tool for content generation and distribution, content which will in turn benefit its distribution method for external content. Apple created iTunes first as a tool for collecting one’s “own” media, and THEN evolved into a platform for distributing external media (very valuable content) through the store. With Final Cut Pro X, Apple aims to establish a platform through which users can generate content internally and therefore become even more accustomed/adaptable to the mechanisms of media consumption. A solid example of this: the new Motion embraces a new grammar of effects publishing rather than just rendering. Meaning the tool is becoming one of authoring reproduceable effects to be hooked into FCP X with adjustable parameters, rather than rendered out with parameters baked in. Video publishing, in the same sense as “desktop publishing”.

When Apple pushed FCP to the industry pros five or six years ago, they did some hardcore outreach. They brought out Walter Murch, for God’s sake. The man cut Cold Mountain on it for God’s sake. They evangelized by showing what had been done, not by what could be done. But this time out, there is no evangelizing. No Murch. They do a dog and pony with vapid car footage or a Pixar trailer or something. This is meaningless to industry pros who need to know one thing, and it’s a very simple thing: can I edit a _____ on it? You know what I want to know? Can Louie CK edit his show on FCP X? Would he? Would he be happy to do it? Would he speak to a crowd of people about the experience? Would he plan on the product getting better? At what point does Apple ever even hint at admitting that they’ve released a product that will improve with age? Do they owe it (or anything) to their pro user base to acknowledge even a transition period? I want to be emailed a questionnaire and I want my Apple rep to write to me and invite me to a seminar called “Let’s cut a commercial”.

You know how many licenses of FCP Murch and Cold Mountain sold? Millions. Know how many licenses the most beautifully-crafted, tastefully-shot home movie of your family trip to Lake Havasu will sell? Fuck all. Nobody wants to make the best home movie ever. It’s just not an aspirational thing anymore, the way it was in the early days of hub computing, when the Mac was aspirationally this centered hub of creation. We don’t want to do that anymore, our eyes are bigger. We all want to think we can make The Social Network now. So show me Fincher cutting The Social Network on FCP X and you’ll have me on board.

There’s something particularly telling in the fact that the last version of the software was called FCP 7 and this one is FCP 10. For all intents and purposes, they skipped major releases 8 and 9 to get here. FCP 8 and 9 could have elegantly prepared the market for FCP 10. Instead, they should have called it Final Cut Next. That way they could have easily avoided the obsolescence factor, which makes people like me feel like idiot dinosaur babies about using the second last version of their software. And I’m not even saying call FCP 7 “Classic” like they did with OS 9. I mean continue to support FCP 7. Even do a new release. Let the two versions eventually achieve equilibrium and then kill the old one.

Apple is dead set on killing the file system. And as passé as the file system is to modern, enlightened computer people, professional editing relies on manual file management because we must manage BIG files, we must trade them between many software packages, and we must transport them back and forth to many locations. We typically do this over FTP (which is still painfully slow) or on external hard drives (which is pretty cumbersome). We need these things because in our industry, data is HEAVY. That’s why we require the most powerful hardware and the most storage. But this goes against Apple’s vision. Apple has a vested interested in tearing down the file system (or at least what we see as the file system). There is only one way to do this, and that is to give the user only one option of file storage. There are two reasons for this: the first being that performance is greatly enhanced by ensuring that all frames are stored on reliable internal storage. The second, though, is to stay on-message with the removal of the layer of abstraction of file location. To Apple, there should be only one location—one instance. None of this “reconnect media” legacy bullcrap that editors like me rely on for media management. One Event, one location. For everything else, in the near future, that one location will be the cloud. This is not possible with the large amounts of data required for video. So they do the next best thing, which is require all source material to be ingested and live locally in one place.

Apple is always so elegant in weaving the narrative of the company with its products, at every step, preparing its users (and potential users) for the next thing by iterating slowly on the last thing. But this was a particularly poorly-written narrative. It was bold, careless and ham-fisted. You cannot expect your users to embrace a character development that comes out of nowhere when those very users exist in a category which requires them to be obsessive about your product. Final Cut Pro is like a soap opera and Apple is the network. You’ve had a character, let’s say Luke and Laura, who’ve been around, developing their storyline and their romance for a decade. The show’s viewers are heavily invested in Luke and Laura. But the network decides that Luke and Laura represent an old, outmoded character type, and that the new way is young, hip, lean. Apple came in and announced three months ago at a slash fic convention that the characters of Luke and Laura are going to evolve in new, compelling ways. It was announced that the new season would be exciting, twice as glamorous, easier on the eye, fun for everyone to watch. The usual Apple, the Apple we all know, would have teased these new developing characters seemingly from nowhere. These would have been minor characters at first—maybe a scorned lover and a doctor with an eyepatch. We’d get used to them, let their characters develop, and then we would embrace them. But not this time. Instead, a few months later, Apple released a new season of the show and wrote Luke and Laura into an old folks home, but wrote new characters called Loot and Lorba, and declared that they’re better than the old Luke and Laura, that they’re more attractive and they’re all you need. Naturally, the audience is not going to embrace this decision. The audience will flip out, quit watching the show, switch to General Hospital or something—I don’t watch soap operas. And that’s what’s happening now. It’s Saved By the Bell syndrome. You can’t pass off this “New Class” bullshit on me without introducing some of these characters one by one. No one’s going to watch your shitty show (even if some of the writing is quite good and Principal Belding is still in the cast).

No, this product release had none of the grace of the typical Apple storytelling—coming off like a distinct absence of a rabbi shepherding it through to market. Like, dare say, an absence of THE rabbi shepherding it through. Which leads us to wonder just how much of a shit does Steve give about FCP? Does Steve know or has he ever known, when we look past The Vision and get closer to the user, why FCP has become the market leader and the success that it has? This just feels like a lot of success of an established product taken for granted.

According to David Pogue, Apple says they’ve rewritten the app to accommodate changes on the technological landscape. What could these changes possibly be? Could it be that Apple has a very clear and well-rendered vision of the future of video? Could it be that the Apple sees a future where source material is assembled in real time by an engine that works on the viewer side rather than the author side? Where editing is something that happens in process of distribution, and not (as it has always been) well before? Think of this new vision of video as the HTML5 to Flash. Where elements are lightweight and rendered on the fly, rather than pre-baked and packaged into chunky deliverables. I firmly believe that this is Apple’s vision of the future of video and media, and that Final Cut Pro X is a new, bold (ill-timed and hastily executed) flagship to support this vision.