By Bryan Schultz
Overview: Final Cut Express HD is a Semi-Pro video editing software station produced by Apple to be a Mid-Ranged package aimed at 'Semi-Pro' and 'Light Professional' users for providing video import, editing, production, text generation and sound tools for excellent results with a reasonable price break point between iMovie and Final Cut Pro.
First glance: As I received this software I was at the very tail end of a small project for a client and was unable to install it for a few days (Obviously, I was salivating at the chance to get this software 'online' and running!).
SIDENOTE: Now you're asking why not just install the software? Heh, heh, mmm young padawan learner! You have much to learn! As I've told friends and colleagues alike, 'never switch horses in the middle of the river' !!! I've had more than my share of experience having to fight with a 'butchered' project because I wanted to use new software right in the middle of working on a current project. Just a note of caution from experience: Always start a new software package with a fresh project. 'Nuff said'...
After deciding against immediately installing the software; I took a quick run to the Apple site to check out the differences between iMovie HD, Final Cut Express HD, and Final Cut Pro HD. I was pleasantly surprised at the feature set of Final Cut Express (Hereafter designated: 'FCE' Hope you don't mind! That's a LOT to type!).
My first impression just looking at the box made me think that perhaps there were a limited number of video/audio tracks compared to FC-Pro. Not so. FCE has just as many video tracks available and a healthy helping of audio tracks to boot. One thing I did notice; There is a BIG difference in how you will execute effects in FCE compared to iMovie. If you are used to using 'premade' effects or effects that have just a few selections and do a lot, you will not have these types of selections in FCE. FCE is designed with absolute control in mind just like Final Cut Pro HD. A good thing is that FCE, like it's siblings, provides support for third party effects (But, only certain ones so check your package for compatibility).
In the box you're provided with the primary install disk, two disks for 'Live Type' data and a 'Soundtrack' data disk. There's actually a number of manuals that will really help you get the program installed and off the ground.
I decided to start with just a few clips instead of a full project so I could better explain each item that I wanted to touch upon here.
Opening FCE is a snap. I plugged in my Sony Firewire camera and FCE found it immediately. If you decide to go with FCE, you shouldn't have any problem with your current camera if you're using iMovie. Be sure to check the compatibility list on the Apple website to insure your camera will work with FCE. However, you will not find older versions of video cameras listed. I looked for mine and could not find it in the list. Although it's always worked just fine with iMovie and Final Cut Pro. If you decide to go with a camera, a safe choice would be Any TRV Sony camera with Firewire. This will allow FCE to automate the camera in order to import footage.
Once open you're greeted with the standard loaded screens. You'll find A view screen to the far right, an 'editing' screen at the center, the footage 'bin' on the left and the timeline below all three. I decided to start with pulling some footage into FCE. Here is where the differences with FCE and iMovie begin. In FC-Pro and FCE in order to pull footage in from a camera you choose a capture screen that allows you to record from your media and log it into the program. iMovie merely changes the screen. There is no 'logging' function in iMovie either – If you have a lot of clips – you only have the clip name from which to work. FCE contains the capability to log shots by name, tape number, and footage with an incremental number. With FCE you use the shuttle buttons on the bottom of this screen to move to the footage you'd like to pull in and click the 'Now' button to perform the capture. Though iMovie has this same function, you also have a feature known as 'project capture' in FCE. This is a function that allows you to queue an entire tape by adding markers to locations from where you want to pull 'takes'. If you do this to an entire tape, you can simply select the 'project capture' button and FCE will rewind the tape for you and record all the takes that you wanted to pull from your media. Very cool. I do use it during projects. If you're doing a large project this feature can be a great tool to allow you to grab the clips you need and save the drive on your camera as well. One caveat is to make sure you have one long string of footage on your cam before you begin the batch capture. FCE's capture function uses the digital timeline in your camera to record exactly where on the tape the clips are that you'd like to put into the program. If you have any 'blank blue' areas, this breaks the timeline and FCE will do some really funky stuff to your camera. It won't break it. But, it creates an issue because it cannot figure out where to go for the next clip after a blank blue area.
When I imported clips for my project, the clips imported without incident. One nice feature that I see over the old FC-Pro4 is the ability to see a picture of the clip in the bin. In older versions you only had archaic names that you could use which were helpful, but no substitute for actually seeing a picture (Very Nice). iMovie had already had this function and they should have put that in long ago!
Another nice feature is the ability to right click on a clip and see detailed information about location, size, type and name. No more stumbling through your hard disk to find where a clip may be.
Editing is a far different story in FCE compared to iMovie. Place a clip in the iMovie timeline and it allows you to split the clip and add other clips with a reasonable amount of control. Effects are previewed on the right by selecting the 'sub-tab' that contains the effects. You preview your premade effect with a few adjustments in a very small preview window, then select to 'commit' to the change immediately, or discard. In FCE, the process is close to the same idea. However, you have a much larger palette from which to control your effects. You place a clip in the timeline in FCE, then select the 'Effects' tab and choose your effect. Instead of seeing an effect in a small preview window like in iMovie, You can double-click on the clip itself in the timeline and the center view screen will bring up the clip with the effect embedded into it. Select one of the sub tabs for the effect in the center view window and you're greeted with a ton of selections that allow you to adjust the effects' time to unfold in the clip, amounts of density, and other unnamed items that give you full control over the effect (I say this because each effect I've viewed has items in it specific to the effects' actions. So, there's lots of selections available that are far different from the standard iMovie effects you'll see).
There are some other differences in effects between iMovie and FCE that are minute but significant if you are looking for a truly professional look. These are subtle differences, but they link between the ability of FCE to contain multiple video tracks in conjunction with some of the effects.
In short, an example would be a generated transition from one clip to another using the slow motion function. For a quick explanation, I created a short clip of a medieval knight on a horse rounding a bend. Initially, the clip was in a gold tone color, slow-motion, and an effect of a simulated wide screen. As the horse rounds the bend, the knight 'rides into today's world' as the wide screen effect widens to a full frame picture in color where the horse is riding at full speed. Rendering this change in iMovie yielded clunky results. I wanted a smooth transition between the gold colored widescreen and the full color look of the final result. Because of the speed change however, the transition is 'truncated' or shortened in iMovie. In order for iMovie to create a 'cross-faded' gold-to-color look, the clip needs to have a few seconds of 'tassel' on each side of the transition to allow the cross-fade to take place. So, the effect shows the horse at the transition rounding the bend at 'two different times' instead of a smooth slow motion to full speed. Creating this transition in FCE provided the desired result. Because I could create duplicate clips of the same video clip using two different video 'tracks', I was able to exactly match where the horse was compared to the end of the slow motion effect to create a perfect 'flow' as the knight rounds the bend into color. Again, a subtle difference. But, rather irritating if you're trying to do something that technical in iMovie.
There are a myriad of standard effects available within FCE that you will want to explore as well. Many dynamic 'fade/transition' effects, color correction, blending, distortions and even compositing with 'blue' and 'green screen' compositing that allow you to remove backgrounds for objects to place in other 'environments'. I had some fun with this effect with some rather interesting results.
I decided to create a short 'space scene' of a spaceship flying toward Earth. I created a 'star field' in Photoshop, garnered an amazing rendering of Earth at the 'evening equinox' using an astronomy program called 'Celestia', and pulled the HEAD off one of my son's 'Bionicle' characters for a pretty cool looking little spaceship! I laid out a simple 'green blanket' on the floor and ran my Bionicle ship past the camera a few times. I then imported this clip into FCE and laid the star field behind it with some simple movement on the Earth. I added a little music from 'Star Wars' and had a rather interesting space flight that actually looked pretty darned good considering I only spent about two hours on it! The green blanket was almost (And I mean NEARLY ALL) completely removed from the background of the little Bionicle headed spaceship which made it look nearly real behind such a great pic of the Earth. I was impressed! NOW if I could only get my LIGHTSABER to turn on when I'm filming, I'll be all set! (Can someone help me with this pesky switch?!)
ANYWAY! There's plenty of really great effects in FCE that should keep you busy for quite some time. There are many that I haven't even explored and many that I continue to find new uses for based on their controls when in use. If you get tired of the internal effects as well, FCE integrates many 'canned', special, or pre-made effects as well that should put you in the black for the duration of your use with FCE.
Other included features of FCE are the inclusion of LiveType. This is a program which provides some excellent effects for text/transitions/credits, that allow the text to move/breath/jump/jitter, or whatever your heart may desire for some very professional looking texting features (This is a very complicated end of FCE that could take another entire article to explain. But, if you purchase FCE, be sure to look for this program, you'll find it an amazing addition). It works very well for creating moving logos such as my Riverdog Productions, LLC title track – Using LiveType created a very professional looking logo for DVD production.
SoundTrack' is another great program included that allows you to create Garage Band style music with dynamic tempos, instrumentation, and styles to inject into your productions. This is yet another VERY deep facet of FCE that needs to be explored further (After purchase perhaps?!). But, none-the-less provides very professional results to FCE's movie making arsenal.
I also found the 'soft manuals' a great tool if you're in a bind and trying to find information about an effect use, or intricate function. I just copied the PDFs to my hard drive and use 'Preview's' Search function to look information up – An EXCELLENT way to pull fast accurate information.
After using FCE for about 8 weeks now, I think I'd find it difficult to go back to iMovie HD. However, those of you who are used to using iMovie HD take heart. I am in NO WAY diminishing the usefulness of iMovie. I have friends that use iMovie professionally for all sorts of projects. These projects are professional looking and well built. My peers certainly know iMovie FAR better than I. ALSO, I still like to use iMovie for my own personal 'home movies' as well. Sometimes you get some movie footage from your latest vacation with the kids and the Mrs. Working with the 'total control' of FCE in this situation takes longer than I'd like when I just want grandma to ooooh and aaaah over the grand kiddies. But, when I am working with paying customers who like the work I do, and to whom I would like to provide a very polished and precise product, I reach for Final Cut Express.
So why buy Final Cut Express over iMovie?
The operative word here is: 'Control'.
Though iMovie is a great tool for working on video projects, Final Cut Express is far more detailed in it's functions than that of iMovie. One good way to look at it is to consider that most of the controls you have in iMovie are set in “presets”. Looking at these same controls in Final Cut Express give you far more control. Color functions are more detailed giving you more expressive control, there are special functions in Final Cut Express like “DeInterlacing” that keeps your still pictures from jittering, and just the addition of additional video tracks in Final Cut Express give you far more control over the transitions and “overlaying” in your projects.
iMovie is a great product which provides solid results in many situations. But, Final Cut Express has the 'moxy' to provide professional results every bit as good as Final Cut Pro in 99% of projects that a semi-pro would get into without breaking the bank for that sizable a purchase. In my opinion, for the items you lose in Final Cut Express over Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express fits the bill for nearly any situation.
If you are as into your videos and production control as I am, buy Final Cut Express. You will not be disappointed.
In closing – If you're interested in getting a good book to help you in using Final Cut Express, Look at a book called: 'Final Cut Express HD for Mac OS X' by: Lisa Brennis. It is one of the 'Visual Quickstart guides' provided by Peachpit Press. This book has been invaluable to me in providing quick accurate information with plenty of pictures to help me understand some of the finer points in Final Cut Express's usage. It covers lots of topics such as: Keyframing, Markers, Motion Paths, Effects application, and many more.
(Lastly: Monte: Thank you THANK YOU for the opportunity to review this software. Your diligence has yielded some fantastic benefits for GRAMUG. I am ever grateful for your friendship and your communication 'savvy'. For those of you interested, this package was provided to me free of charge for being a member, and being willing to provide this review for GRAMUG. So, if you are interested in receiving some great perks like this program, become a member / and get involved!)
Posted: Saturday, September 24th, 2005