First Flight: Final Cut Express (part 1)

iMovie has been acting all passive-agressive on me recently. Take my most recent video, for example. All was skittles and beer for the first half of the project, and then iMovie decided “I bet if I make all of the clips Andy’s carefully built so far vanish, forcing him to repeatedly redraw the window before he can continue to make edits, he’ll eventually get frustrated and knock off for the night. And then I can play Warcraft until tomorrow morning.”

Many of you folks have jobs. I’m sure you recognize this sort of attitude in your co-workers.

It sort of nudged me to finally move on to Final Cut Express. I do try not to request software or hardware from a manufacturer unless I have a specific review or column in mind, but the Final Cut family is indeed an important creative tool and I suppose as an internationally-beloved technology pundit, I have a certain responsibility to have a nonzero level of knowledge about the app.

It arrived Wednesday. I installed it Thursday. And today…I’m taking it for its first test drive. I’ll be making notes as I try to edit a little three-minute video.

Okay. I’ve launched and I’m already confused. iMovie ’08 (and its predecessors) had a user interface that made its workflow plain to the ignorant observer. I see lots of windows and buttons and sliders and scrubbers and viewers and now I’m so confused that I don’t know whether I want to vote for Obama or Captain Kirk in next purple’s football election.

Staring at it for five minutes didn’t help.

Neither did randomly pushing buttons.

Okay. This isn’t a slam against Final Cut. This app is not promoted or sold as consumer software. It’s sold as prtofessional software. On that basis, it’s not unreasonable that they expect the user to do some larnin’ before doing any editin’.

I open the PDF manual in Preview and start reading. Okay. I’m understanding this.

Retire to the TV room to read some more. Start watching “The Office” on DVR. Get bored with reading. Google for “Final Cut Tutorial” and immediately encounter Apple’s online videos.

MAR-velous. Exactly what I wanted to see. I get to look over someone’s shoulder as they import clips and cut something together. I still have to learn, but now I see the path ahead of me. I watch ’em all, splitting my attention between the TV and the nice, middle-class-sounding man in the computer.

Back at it. Okay, I’m going to import my video files (MP4s, copied to my hard drive from the Mino HD and the Zi6) using Final Cut’s “Log And Transfer” tool.

The tutorial made it look so easy. The tool shows you all of your video clips. One by one, you can import or reject them, select the in and out points (where you want the clip to start and end in your project), describe the clips, etc.).

Awesome…but it doesn’t want to open any of the Quicktimes I have on my hard drive. No matter what I drag or how I point to something. Hmph. I gather that this tool only works with a camera connected via USB or Firewire. I suppose there’s some sort of logical reason why I can’t use it to process a folder full of MP4s but dammit, from here it seems like a silly and arbitrary distinction.

Okey-doke. I’ll just use “Import Files” from the “File” menu. Cool, it works just as it does in iMovie.

And the tutorial gave me the lay of the land. Viewer on the left is the element that I’m working with at the moment; it’s a video clip, so I can use the viewer to look at the video, decide where the clip should start and end, etc. Viewer on the right is the “live feed,” so to speak. It shows me how my various edits and choices are affecting the final product.

Which is a nice step forward from iMovie. Gives you a distinction between the final product and the elements that make up the final product. In iMovie there’s never a sense of “I’m not ready to build my movie yet but I just want to prepare some of the footage I shot so it’s all clear in my head when I sit down again tomorrow.”

Before I edit, I must organize. I create a separate “bin” in the project window for the clips from each camera.

I also add the intro voice-over I recorded in Quicktime Pro. I love QTP for tasks like this. It’s fast, it’s simple, it stays out of your way, it doesn’t hog system resources.

Oh. Final Cut has a built-in voice-over tool. Ah. Well, maybe I’ll try that later. I’ve got the QTP version just the way I like it. Waste not, want not.

I open the tool just to get a look at it. Hmm. I wish it didn’t drop a window over the viewer that was the exact same style and dimensions. I click the “close” button and am relieved to find that the viewer was right behind it all the time. In situations like this though I worry that the app used the old window as a container and now I’ll have to figure out how to re-open it and put it back where it was.

Whoops, I haven’t had breakfast yet and my stomach is growling. But I want to play a little bit more. I double-click the first video file. It opens in the viewer. I use the same simple controls I use in Quicktime Pro: I watch the video play and tap the “i” key (“in”) to mark the point where I’d like the clip to start. Tap “o” (“out”) to mark the end.

Huh? I’m having a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment: the audio is slightly out of sync. I open the same clip in QT Pro. Nope, it’s in sync. Huh, again? Final Cut wants my attention: it’s saying it can’t auto-save the project until I save it.

I thought I already had. Okay, fine, save it…huh? Now it’s created a second tab in my clips browser with the same name as what I saved the project under the first time…!

Okay, screw this. Breakfast. More later.

6 thoughts on “First Flight: Final Cut Express (part 1)

  1. Blake Helms

    I have several friends who use it and find Final Cut Express more intuitive than the new iMovie. I’ve used Avid, Premiere and Final Cut Pro. Only gripe is they need better window managament. It seems like a problem that Apple could come up with a really interesting out of the box solution to. Maybe even context aware. If I’m scrubbing the timeline hide the windows that are not video or color correction. Working on audio bring the audio windows to the front.

  2. Jeff Lyness

    Dear Internationally-Beloved Technology pundit – Hang in there with it! I switched to FCE from iMovie last year. Definitely a steep learning curve that required some hours of reading/viewing books/tutorials on the subject, but in the end it came to feel very common-sensical. And the power and flexibility, the organizational tools, the ability to do massive edits or duplicates of projects without sacrificing much hard drive space… it’s not for everyone, but it sure was worth it for me.

  3. Patrick

    I understand your frustrations. I also use Final Cut Express and the feature set is plenty for the kind of jobs I do however if one doesn’t have a lot of high level video editing experience their is quite the learning curve. Granted for what u can produce it is worth it but it carry a lot of the pro level terminology and workflows which are just fine if u are in the full version of Final Cut Studio. I personally would be a bit happier with an iMovie Pro instead of a Final Cut Express if that makes sense. I also recently purchased a new 22 inch monitor to work in FCE better but it still seems to beg for an even larger display to get the work done.

  4. Ihnatko Post author

    I like FCE a lot. I also like iMovie ’08 a lot…I think it’s a marvelous consumer tool and using FCE just made me appreciate iM’s design choices even more. iMovie is honed towards the problem of dumping an hour of Middle School Winter Concert footage, cutting out all but 10 minutes of it, and dropping in titles and transitions. They threw out everything that might complicate that simple process.

    I am indeed adjusting to FCE’s terminology and tools but I find its organic nature very easy. I am also very, very pleased to once again be editing in an environment that lets me say “I want this to happen before THIS frame, right here.”

  5. Daniel

    Just updated my facebook favorite quotes profile with:
    “I’m having a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment” –Andy Ihnatko

  6. Steven R.

    Finally! I thought I was the only imovie user who encountered the irritating problem of constantly having to redraw my window because the clips vanished. This bug have been plaguing me since day one. ugh.

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