Final Cut is Reliable Again!

I recently got my sweaty mitts on the latest Final Cut Pro Studio — which includes, among other things, Final Cut Pro 5, DVD Studio Pro 4, and Compressor 2 — and had the opportunity to run it through its paces on a fairly long and involved project. The project involved cutting about five hours of vacation footage down to somewhere around an hour-and-a-half. There was also a 3 minute music video section for the grand finale. Finally, I had to author a DVD around all this content, complete with chapters and a slideshow of stills from the video. Oh, and did I mention, this all had to be done in four days?

Final Cut Pro
Some background first: I've been using FCP since the golden days of version 1.0. Okay, the golden days didn't really start until v.1.2.5. But suffice to say, that version of the program was rock solid. I could use it on my beige G3 for hours with nary a crash. It was easy and reliable and worked like a dream. And I fell in love. Subsequent versions of the app saw gradual decreases in stability. Version 2 was okay. No real problems, I guess, but the occasional crash, to be sure. This was the version in which they implemented the "Autosave" feature, which I remarked to my class that year, was indicative of the fact that Apple pretty much knew the app would crash at some point, and that my students should bear this in mind for obvious reasons. Version three was increasingly buggy and crash-prone, and it only got worse in version 4. Version 4 was an abomination. With that version I saw my beloved Final Cut go from rock-solid, wonderful video editor to a time and troubleshooting black hole. It was horrid. So much so that — after participating in every user-group survey I could find — I finally, for the first time ever, submitted feedback to Apple. It was that bad. In my post I pleaded with them to bring back the qualities that made Final Cut the app to use (or, in many cases, switch to) for video editing: ease-of-use and stability. Fuck features, these things come first.

Well, it looks like it worked.

I'll say up front, over the course of four days of straight editing — on a system that most likely needs a new motherboard no less — Final Cut Pro v.5.0.4 did not crash once. Not. One. Single. Time.

That's what I'm talking about.

There was still the occasional bug or two. There's that pesky bug where pasting into the timeline sometimes puts the pasted clip into track one, and sometimes into track two, even though track two is the only paste-enabled track. A few years ago, Apple changed the default paste-to-track behavior, so that now you have to disable pasting in the tracks you don't want to paste into, rather than enabling the ones you do, which seems ass-backwards and totally counter-intuitive, but whatever. And I could live with it if it worked predictably, but it doesn't. Still. What's up with that?

Fortunately, we see some bug fixes in this version as well, though. The most annoying (and as-yet-unfixed) bug in version 4 was the text rendering bug that, about 50% of the time, caused text to be "smeared" or "doubled," both in preview and in render. I've actually seen this on TV when editors were clearly using FCP v.4 and just didn't catch it or couldn't figure out how to fix it. It's incredibly annoying, and thankfully, it's totally fixed in FCP 5. Or at least it didn't happen to me once during this whole project, and I did lots of text.

DVD Studio Pro
Other Pro Apps saw appreciable gains in stability and overall usefulness. DVD Studio Pro has gotten a bit peppier in the UI. My main complaint in previous versions of DVDSP was that it was dead slow at times, even on a G5, but this version performed quite nicely. There were some minor glitches with chapter markers and slideshow timings that showed up on builds of the disc, but these were usually rectified by resetting the properties of the element in question, and other than that, the application worked great, stayed out of my way, and allowed me to rapidly author, test and build my DVD.

Compressor has seen some improvement too, though still not enough that I could recommend it. Compressor is now the default way Apple expects you to encode your media to MPEG2 for DVD authoring. In fact, the MPEG2 Export Component included with previous versions of FCP is strangely absent from this release. After installing FCP Production Suite 5, you will no longer have the ability to encode MPEG2 movies from Quicktime Pro. This would be fine except that, at least in my experience, Compressor sucks ass at encoding video. Let me be a bit more specific: Compressor takes for freaking ever to encode movies to MPEG2. Wanna know why? Well, apparently, Compressor is not multiprocessor aware. To wit: I took my movie to encode into Compressor (directly from FCP, which is pretty sweet integration, I must say) and began encoding. When the encode was taking way longer than I thought it should (four hours for a ten minute movie? Dude, I'm on a deadline here!) I decided to check Compressor's resource usage with the ever-useful top -u command. top showed Compressor running at 70% max. After replacing my MPEG2 Export Component, I used Quicktime 7 to encode the same clip, with the same settings, and it used around 190% of the two processors. Not too shabby, and much faster!

The other problem with Compressor is that, when you access it via FCP, it takes over the FCP interface and locks you out of your project. So, if you use Compressor to encode your movie, you can't continue editing in FCP. Hey! Did I mention I'm on deadline here?

I'm sorry, Compressor is a great idea, but it's just not ready for primetime, and it's really not ready to be the default encoder for MPEG2 material. It's just too slow and it completely locks you out of your FCP project.

Hmmm... Maybe I should send feedback...

Overall, I'd say this is a very good year for Final Cut users (unless you're getting a new Intel Mac before March). The suite is working better than it has in years, and there are lots of new features to play with that I won't even bother talking about. 'Cause the best new feature in this year's FCP release, in my opinion, is stability.

Really, what better feature is there?

An intrepid commentor asked how to get back the old Quicktime MPEG2 component. Here's how to get it from your original DVDSP install disc:

  1. Insert the DVD Studio Pro install disc
  2. Control-click on the "Install DVD Studio Pro 3" alias and select "Show Original"
  3. In the resulting window there will be a folder called "Packages" which contains all of the individual installers for the DVDSP app, including the one for the QT MPEG Component
  4. Open the "Packages" folder and run the package installer called "QuicktimeProMediaComponent.pkg"

It looks like you can also run into serialization issues when trying to restore MPEG2 functionality to Quicktime, as one reader points out. See the comments for a number of additional solutions to this problem.