July 8, 2011
by Helmut Kobler, Creative Cow
If you’re a Final Cut editor contemplating making a change in the wake of Apple’s FCPX roll-out, you’re not alone. Here’s one long-time Final Cut user who tried out Adobe Premiere CS5.5 on a paying gig. He found a lot to like, and not much to miss.
For original article, click here:
A Final Cutter Tries Out Premiere Pro
I’ve been a Final Cut user since 2000. I’ve written three “Final Cut Pro for Dummies” books (plus one about Final Cut Express). I’ve written fairly glowing reviews of multiple versions of Final Cut for multiple Mac magazines. But since 2010, I’ve been contemplating my escape from Planet Final Cut…
Yes, this was before the Apple Final Cut Pro X debacle/disaster/catastrophe/suicide attempt. This was before Apple, in the wake of FCPX, arrogantly pulled Final Cut Studio 3 off the market, preventing long-time customers from buying additional seats. It was before Apple abruptly killed off Final Cut Server (without any public comment), wiping out massive amounts of money and time that trusting customers had thrown into it.
Yes, well before all of Apple’s recent shenanigans, I started to sense that Final Cut, along with all of Apple’s professional apps and gear, was slowly being strangled to death. Here are a few of the harbingers of doom that caught my eye over recent years:
- Apple took nearly 2.5 years to upgrade Final Cut Studio from version 2 to 3 (and v.3 was only a moderate upgrade at that). Until then, updates had come at a much more aggressive pace.
- Apple cancelled the popular Shake, promising to replace it with a new tool that never came.
- Apple got lazy with its Logic Pro app as well, letting development creep along with an upgrade about every two years.
- Apple stopped updating the Pro page on its web site long ago. There hasn’t been a new item posted in almost two years: http://www.apple.com/pro/
- Apple took more than a year to fix a glaring Final Cut 7 bug that made its Close Gap command unreliable. To break a core Timeline feature like Close Gap and not fix it for 14 months was offensive and inexcusable.
- Apple cancelled its Xserve RAID then its Xserve hardware.
- Apple started taking longer and longer to release Mac Pro workstations, and absolutely phoned in the latest upgrade last July. 511 days in the making, the newest Mac Pro was one of the most un-inspired hardware upgrades I’ve ever seen from Apple.
- Apple pulled out of industry trade events like NAB.
- Multiple rumors (and confirmation of rumors) of significant layoffs in the Pro Apps division.
- Multiple rumors that Apple was trying to sell off its Pro Apps division.
Take just a few of these and maybe they don’t add up to anything. But take all of them together, and it’s a real sign of Apple’s low-to-non-existent priority for professional media. Yes, the writing has been on the wall for quite a while, and by 2010, I reluctantly began to read it. Late last year, I started to look at the two clear alternatives to Final Cut….
Why Premiere and CS5.5?
Avid Media Composer was an obvious choice, and I knew that Avid had really gotten its act together over the last couple of years, with a series of rapid-fire upgrades and compelling price drops. I’d also had some direct contact with various Avid employees and saw that they were very serious about listening to their customers, and communicating with them. As any Final Cut user knows, customer communication is wayyyyy down on Apple’s list.
But most of my projects involve editing short-form documentaries that play online, and that are heavy in still pictures (edited in Photoshop) and motion graphics (created in After Effects). Those unique characteristics made me take a look at Adobe Premiere Pro.
Like Avid, I knew that Adobe had been very busy over the last few years. For instance, in the time that Apple released only one upgrade to Final Cut (going from Final Cut Studio v2 to v3), Adobe released FOUR appreciable upgrades to Premiere (CS3, CS4, CS5 & CS5.5). And in between those releases, Adobe also issued smaller “point-something” updates which fixed bugs but also added functionality (support for RedCode, for AVC-Intra, OMF export. etc.)
Finally, taking a look at Premiere’s latest feature set impressed me. Some highlights:
- Premiere is a 64-bit application.
- It imports native footage from DSLRs, P2 cameras, Sony cameras, ProRes field recorders, etc. No time-wasting transcoding and space-wasting duplication of native media.
- Like Final Cut, Premiere’s editing is designed to happen on its Timeline, and its tools seem very similar to Final Cut’s.
- Premiere’s “Mercury Playback Engine” can mix different formats without rendering, and can play a few of layers of native footage and/or effects in real-time without extra hardware acceleration (at least on a fast computer like a Mac Pro). But if you install certain Nvidia graphics cards in your Mac, like the new Nvidia Quadro 4000, you can boost the Mercury Engine’s performance by many layers and/or effects.
- Premiere Pro has a lot of the features that are currently AWOL from Final Cut Pro X. There’s multi-camera editing, support for capture/output cards from AJA and Blackmagic, support for XML, AAF import/export, OMF export, etc.
- Many editors and producers (like me) already buy Adobe’s Creative Suite for Photoshop and After Effects, so trying out Premiere is a free bonus. And the Creative Suite also includes apps for audio editing and mixing (Audition), DVD/BlueRay authoring (Encore), batch encoding video into multiple formats (Adobe Media Encoder), and an interesting script development and breakdown app called Adobe Story that works with Premiere to help organize your footage in post.
- Tight integration with other Adobe apps like PhotoShop and After Effects, letting you make changes to files using those apps, and seeing the results automatically appear in Premiere. This was a major benefit for me.
- I’m not a big user of third-party plug-ins, but I noticed that the ones I do use (pretty much all from Red Giant such as Colorista and a smattering of Magic Bullet) work with Premiere.
These and a lot of other features (see http://www.adobe.com/products/premiere/features.html) convinced me to give Premiere a try as I migrated my documentaries away from Final Cut.
A Real-World Project with Premiere
My next step was to actually try Premiere out on a real-world project I had coming up. It was a 6-minute documentary for a well-known college in California, profiling a famous faculty member. It would involve interview footage shot from two P2 cameras, along with lots of vintage photos cut up in Photoshop, and animated in 3D space via After Effects.
I installed a beta copy of Premiere Pro CS 5.5 on my 2009 Mac Pro (replaced with a final version mid-project), and got to work, making notes of any problems I ran into, along with similarities/differences with Final Cut.
The sections that follow below contain all those impressions, but for those in a hurry, I can sum up my overall experience right now: it was remarkably easy. Within a couple of days, I was working in Premiere almost as smoothly as I would work in Final Cut. Many of Final Cut’s Timeline tools have direct equivalents in Premiere, and the whole “philosophy” of editing is very similar between the two apps.
In many ways, I was impressed with how much further ahead Premiere was compared to Final Cut 7 (importing native footage, the Mercury Engine’s high performance, and tight integration with other must-have tools). On a couple of occasions I was disappointed to find that Premiere was no more advanced than Final Cut (old-school media organization and so-so recognition of metadata baked into my camera’s footage). But there was only one area where I found Premiere to be slightly behind Final Cut, and that was some editing flexibility on the Timeline). Overall, Premiere came out ahead for the kind of work I do.
One more thing: as I dove into Premiere, I had no help. No guidance from Adobe, no third-party book, no tutorials, no manual, and I only occasionally needed to reference Premiere’s help files. It’s a good sign that a Final Cut user can get up to speed with so little support.
So here are some of my impressions….
- Premiere’s overall layout is very Final Cut-esque. It has a Project panel that holds all of your imported media (like Final Cut’s Browser), a Source panel for working with individual clips (aka Final Cut’s Viewer), a Program panel (aka the Canvas), and a Timeline. It also has many other panels for effects, metadata, etc, that you can call up, move around, organize with tabs, and save in custom layouts called Workspaces.
- Overall, Premiere’s interface feels just a tad more cluttered than Final Cut’s. It feels like there are a few more tabbed windows, and a few more buttons throughout. I’d prefer something a tad cleaner, but got used to things very quickly.
Shortcuts For Final Cut
- Adobe makes it easier for Final Cut users to try out Premiere, thanks to the inclusion of a template of keyboard shortcuts inspired by Final Cut (there’s also an Avid template too). Just choose Keyboard Shortcuts…. under the Premiere Pro menu and make the switch. Once you do, you’ll find many of your favorite Final Cut shortcuts activated — for instance, Command-J for speed settings, Command-U to make a subclip, and plenty more. I found this helpful to an extent, but not as much as you’d expect, since some of Premiere’s tools work fundamentally differently than Final Cut’s. For instance, Final Cut lets you repeatedly hit a single key – such as B for Razor Blade or T for Track Select- to toggle through many related tools. Premiere’s tools don’t toggle like that, so you might press T to select an entire track, but as soon as you try TT for Select All Tracks, you get nothing. In the end, after a day or two, I just decided to start memorizing Premiere’s native shortcuts–things like V for the selection tool, N for Rolling edit, and C for the razor. But Premiere does let you customize individual shortcuts as well — not just choose an entire template — so I still switched several commands over to what I knew in Final Cut.
You can make Premiere mimic Final Cut’s keyboard shortcuts. It’s helpful, but tends to break down when you try to use editing tools on the Timeline.
Importing & Organizing Media
- I shot my interview on a Panasonic P2 Varicam using the AVC-Intra 100 codec, and on an HVX200 using DVCPRO HD. To import file-based footage, I learned NOT to choose Import… from Premiere’s File menu. You can import footage that way, but you have to use a standard OS X file selector box to choose file names without seeing the video they represent. Also, if you import file-based footage this way, Premiere won’t reassemble smaller spanned clips into the bigger master clips that the cameraman recorded. So the better option is to use Adobe’s Media Browser (under the Window menu), which lets you navigate to a media folder on your drive, see thumbnails for file-based clips and preview them before importing. This is similar to Final Cut’s Log and Transfer window, but without the ability to set In and Out points or add logging information. Most people don’t use these Log and Transfer features, though, so who cares. And it’s very nice not to transcode media into ProRes.
The Media Browser shows you thumbnails of tapeless media before you import it.
- I couldn’t find a way to specify a logging bin for footage I was importing via the Media Browser. It would just import onto the top level of the Project panel.
- You can create subclips and conventional bins, but I was a little disappointed that there was nothing more modern or out-of-the-box to Premiere’s file management. For instance, I’ve used Smart Folders for years in the Mac’s Finder and Mail apps, and would have loved to see something like a Smart Folder in Premiere. Final Cut 7 is of course guilty of the same barebones tools, but I was hoping to see a little more progress from Premiere….
- As I said, my project involved auditioning and editing tons of still pictures. For still-picture editing, one of the things I absolutely hated about Final Cut was the tiny size of the largest thumbnail view in its Browser. It was just too small to see pictures without having to double-click them and open them in the Viewer. Well, the bad news is that Premiere’s biggest thumbnail size is not appreciably bigger than Final Cut’s and not big enough for me to scan through a ton of pictures quickly. But here’s the good news: the Creative Suite comes with a media preview and organization app called Adobe Bridge, which lets you quickly scroll through huge thumbnails of your media. You can also import images from Bridge to Premiere by dragging the images from Bridge to Premiere’s OS X dock icon. So I was able to use Adobe Bridge as a my Project window/Browser when scanning for pictures.
Premiere’s Project panel is a spitting image of Final Cut’s, except it’s organized on a tile system, so items can’t hide each other.
- There’s a dynamic Search field in the Project window that shows corresponding clip names as soon as you start typing things in. Hit Return on your keyboard to see only the Project items (clips, sequences, etc.) using your search criteria. That’s a little quick erand easier than Final Cut’s clunky Find… function.
- Adobe has gotten religion about metadata, and lets you add dozens of metadata text to your imported media. Premiere can also read metadata coming from other Adobe apps like Photoshop or After Effects, and those apps can read metadata saved in Premiere–for instance, you can use Adobe Bridge to find clips and other media based on their metadata contents. This is a nice improvement over Final Cut 7, which has virtually no inter-application metadata support (unless you’re also using the now-cancelled Final Cut Server).
The metadata panel here shows just a small sample of custom text data you can assign to media.
- As for recognizing metadata that’s already baked into camera footage (something that many cameras do these days), Premiere is better than Final Cut 7, but still not perfect. My project dealt mostly with P2 metadata, and Premiere was able to read some but not all of the custom metadata text I baked in. It read custom clip names, the Creator field (ie, “K2 Films”), and the Shot Location field (“Los Olivos, CA”), but not other fields like Program Name, Shooter, and Text Memo. As for other cameras, I don’t know which of their metadata fields Premiere supports, but my hunch is that it probably skips some useful stuff. Hopefully, Adobe won’t take long before supporting all the metadata of major cameras, especially when some of those let you wirelessly upload metadata in the field, using a laptop, iPhone, iPad, or other smartphone. If a producer/director/script supervisor can enter file names and mark good takes and interesting moments right there, on the set, then metadata will become far more useful.
- Premiere’s editing tools work much like Final Cut’s. All the essentials are there: Match frame, Replace edits, Ripple delete, Ripple tool, Roll tool, Slip tool, Slide tool, a Trim edit window, Extend Previous/Next edit to Playhead, Paste Insert, swap edit (two clips trade places on the Timeline), Reveal Clip in Project, etc. etc. There are keyboard commands for these, and again, you can remap them.
- Final Cut has more specialized Timeline tools to accomplish certain editing tasks. You can do the same tasks in Premiere, but instead of selecting a specialized tool, you work with a slightly more general tool, but use modifier keys such as Command or Shift to change the tool’s behavior. For instance, if you want to use the razor blade to cut through all tracks in Final Cut, you select the Razor Blade All tool. In Premiere, you select the Razor Tool (which normally only affects one track), and then hold the Shift key down to cut through all tracks. Same thing goes for Premiere’s Track Select tool: normally the tool affects just one track, but you can hold Shift to select all tracks. These modifiers let you work quickly once you’re used to them, but they can steepen the learning curve a bit.
Premiere has fewer Timeline tools than Final Cut, but you get the same functionality by using modifier keys.
- One Final Cut editing feature that didn’t have a Premiere equivalent was Final Cut’s Close Gap command, which closed a gap on the Timeline if the playhead was positioned in the gap. I missed that! From what I could tell, the closest you get in Premiere is to click a gap to select it, and then hit the Backspace or Delete key.
- I missed another small Timeline editing feature from Final Cut: the ability to select a clip(s) on the Timeline, hold the Option key, and make a duplicate of the clip by dragging it elsewhere. I used that feature a lot to build alternate edits on Final Cut’s Timeline, seeing which clips I preferred. In Premiere, you have to copy and paste clips to make duplicates, which isn’t as convenient as Final Cut’s click-and-drag approach, especially if you’re trying to place duplicate on another track.
- Premiere has a Paste Attributes command, but as far as I could figure out, it wasn’t as flexible as Final Cut’s in that you have to paste ALL of a copied clip’s attributes to other clips, instead of selecting which of the attributes to paste (filters or basic motion or crop, etc.). Strangely, Premiere does have a Remove Effects feature that lets you decide what kind of effects/attributes to remove from selected clips.
- Like Final Cut, Premiere can create nested sequences, but it also has a unique Group Command, where you can group clips together so they only move as one.
- One nice touch is that you can do Ripple edits on the Timeline without switching from the Selection tool to the Ripple tool. With the Selection tool arrow active, just hold down the Command key to do a ripple edit.
- Premiere CS 5.5 now lets you add clips to the Timeline by dragging them from the Project panel (ie, Browser) to the Program panel (ie, Canvas). A little pop-up box appears in the Program panel telling you to drop the clip for an overwrite edit, or drop it while holding Command for an insert edit. It’s a small bit of familiar Final Cut functionality in a foreign land….
Integration with Other Adobe Apps
- I auditioned a lot of photos on Premiere’s timeline before bringing them into After Effects to animate, and this is where Premiere’s Dynamic Linking with After Effects really paid off. The first dividend came immediately, in that I could select a bunch of clips on Premiere’s Timeline (pictures and video, though I usually worked with pictures), then right-click the selection and choose Replace With After Effects Composition from Premiere’s pop-up menu. Viola: Premiere would automatically send the clips to After Effects, and place them in a new comp with the same resolution and framerate of my Premiere timeline, and trim and position each clip in that comp exactly as I had edited it in Premiere. Finally, that new comp would appear on my Premiere timeline where the individual clips had been, and any changes I made to the comp in After Effects would automatically reflect on Premiere’s timeline. It was fantastic having an After Effects comp embedded in Premiere, letting me make changes in After Effects, and then jump back to Premiere to see how those changes fit in with the rest of my video. If I had tried to do this effects-heavy work with After Effects and Final Cut, I think it would have taken me an extra 2-3 days of re-rendering and importing effects.
- Sometimes I created comps directly in After Effects, and needed to import them into Premiere, creating the same kind of dynamic link. It was as easy as dragging the comp in After Effects, then using the Mac’s Command-Tab switcher to jump to Premiere, and then dropping the comp into my Project window.
- When I imported a Photoshop file and edited it on Premiere’s Timeline, any changes I later made to the file would also automatically reflect on the Timeline (Final Cut can automatically update SOME changes made to imported Photoshop files, but not new layers and bigger changes). This was great for laying photos down quickly to establish my edit and show my client. Weeks later, I went back to Photoshop and did color correction, removed scratches, and extended some backgrounds. Having to re-import all of these revised files into Final Cut would have been a pain….
- As I worked, I regularly uploaded small samples of my video to an FTP server for client review. In my Final Cut days, that meant using Compressor to create a 720×405 pixel video using the H.264 codec, which Compressor automatically uploaded to my server. Fortunately, doing all that was just as easy with Premiere. Premiere ships with a copy of the Adobe Media Encoder, which is a batch-encoder that offers many of the same pre-sets that Compressor does (H.264, iPhone, iPad, AppleTV, YouTube) and some it doesn’t (Flash, Bluray, Vimeo). And like Compressor, the Media Encoder can render away while you work in Premiere. But usually, I didn’t get that far. All of the Media Encoder’s presets (and your custom ones) are available directly in Premiere, so I just encoded media by choosing Export Movie… from under the File menu. The drawback of exporting video directly from Premiere instead of Media Encoder is that you can’t do any editing until the export is done.
- When I exported video from Premiere or from the Adobe Media Encoder, both apps sped things up considerably by using all the cores of my 8-core Mac Pro. That was very nice, after years of watching Compressor ignore most of my Mac’s horsepower.
- When you export video directly from Premiere or use Media Encoder, you can embed the exported videos with a ton of metadata — keywords, actors, crew, subject lines, network names…the list goes on and on. You can bake the metadata into your encode, or save it as a separate file that links to the movie. Then you can use Adobe Bridge to do quick metadata searches, making for a cheap, fast, and easy footage database. Again, Compressor can’t touch that.
- The one hitch with the QuickTime files that Premiere/Media Encoder exported is that they didn’t support progressive downloading. Progressive downloading lets a movie start playing as soon as you’ve downloaded enough of the movie to play it non-stop from start to finish. So if a client clicks a link to watch a 6 minute, 60 megabyte movie, they may only have to wait a few seconds before the movie starts to play in their browser. On the other hand, a movie that does not support progressive downloading will have to load all 60 megabytes before it can start. Anyway, the QuickTime movies Compressor creates are ready for Progressive downloads, but not the ones I was able to create in Adobe’s apps.
- Premiere has a History panel that visually shows each operation you’ve done, letting you backtrack through your work without having to hit Undo several times.
- Premiere can open only one project at a time. On the plus side, you can copy/paste clips and sequences between projects — you just have to close one project, and then open the new one.
- This was a bit strange: scrolling my mouse’s scroll wheel up and down moved Premiere’s Timeline forward and backward in time, instead of scrolling up and down through its tracks. That became a bit annoying as my project grew and I was dealing with a dozen or so tracks and wanted to quickly jump among them. I’d have to do it the old fashioned way by clicking and dragging the Timeline’s vertical scroll bar.
- I was able to consolidate my project to a much smaller size, with handles for media.
- I did encounter a couple of crashes during my 5 week project, but no more than I seemed to get when using Final Cut. In each case, thanks to aggressive auto-saves, I was always able to recover quickly.
I’ve completed one project with Premiere and now I’m starting another with it. But I can’t truly judge a massive application on a couple short projects. It will probably take me months to really get to know Premiere and see what little annoyances crop up and become more glaring with repetition. I’m also going to give Avid Media Composer a spin on a similar project in the next couple of months, and want to try out Final Cut Pro X as well.
But I can definitely say that First Contact with Premiere was impressive and compelling. And beyond the application itself, I have a lot more confidence in Adobe’s ability to deliver professional solutions than I do Apple’s. It’s really very simple: If Apple’s Pro apps went away tomorrow, Apple would barely feel it on its bottom line or stock price. If Adobe’s Pro apps went away, so would Adobe. Pro apps is all Adobe thinks about, and after 4+ years of neglect at Apple’s hands, that kind of singular focus sounds pretty compelling.
About Helmut Kobler
Helmut Kobler is a Los Angeles-based documentary cameraman and producer. He’s also written three editions of Final Cut Pro for Dummies. For more info, go to http://www.losangelescameraman.com.