Apple's moviemaking revolution

Its cheap, fast Final Cut Pro software makes film editing affordable -- and threatens industry leader Avid.

Published June 5, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Charles Wachter spent last summer looking for one thing: the cheapest, quickest possible way to edit his fourth film. "Broken Ocean," a 10-minute short about a skeleton crew trapped on an abandoned oil rig in the North Atlantic, had already run over its $20,000 budget. Wachter's professors at New York University's graduate film school wanted a final version pronto, but Wachter couldn't get Adobe's Premiere editing software to stop adding white pixels to every scene. Even worse, he wasn't sure that borrowed footage of a French oil rig would mesh with the scenes he shot on 16 mm film in an old ship near Hudson Bay.

Desperate, he turned to his classmate, Savvas Paritsis, who agreed to help by cutting the film with Apple's Final Cut Pro. The program had only been out for a year, but it already had a reputation for being far more stable than Premiere and other PC-based systems. And unlike Avid, the gold standard of editing suites in cost and capability, Final Cut was cheap. Free, pirated versions could be found relatively easily online, while with student discounts, the program could be bought for about $250. That's one-seventh the price of Avid's low-end XPress DV and about 300 times cheaper than a standard Hollywood workstation like Media Composer, which retails for about $80,000 and combines hardware and software in a single unit. "I believe that Final Cut is going to rival Avid in a serious way in the next 10 years," says Wachter. "It has everything that's needed to slay the giant: cheapness, affordability and power."

Apple vs. Avid: The battle lines for the future of digital film editing have been drawn. Hollywood, a town not known for its geek quotient, now finds itself in the throes of a passionate technology debate, a discussion about interface design, processing speed, price points and upgrade flexibility. For now, Apple seems to have the low-end momentum while Avid, which pioneered nonlinear, cut-and-paste editing more than a decade ago, maintains a loyal following among high-end commercial and feature film editors, who say that it does a better job than Final Cut with raw film and with file storage.

But it's not just market share that matters. With its laptop-ready software, low prices and fervent following, Final Cut Pro has reignited the dream of filmmaking for the masses. First, digital video and inexpensive cameras made it possible to shoot a professional feature for a fraction of what Hollywood considers standard operating procedure. Then the Internet made distribution easier than ever, and now, many Final Cut fans are saying that Apple has upended the film's final high-cost component: editing.

"One person can take a show from idea to shoot, to cutting, to color-correcting, all the way through production," says Evan Shechtman, president of Outpost Digital, a post-production house that beta-tested Final Cut and now uses it to edit several projects, including "The Life," a 32-episode series for ESPN. "You don't have to be a super-editing scientist to complete a feature."

"Cheap editing is key for young filmmakers," says Wachter. "Broken Ocean" will be completed within weeks and "if it weren't for Savvas' [Apple] G4 and Final Cut, there is no way I could have pulled off a movie set in the North Atlantic, but shot on the Hudson," he says. "Final Cut is the last component needed to fully democratize film."

When Steve Jobs touted Apple's media software in January at San Francisco's Macworld conference, he displayed hokey home movies and quaint family photographs. But despite the down-home feel, Apple has been eyeing the professional market for years. The Cupertino, Calif., company acquired the Final Cut software and development team from Macromedia in 1998. Final Cut Pro 1.0 hit shelves in 1999 to some fanfare and minor upgrades heightened interest. From the start, Apple wooed film schools and editors, including Schectman at Outpost, and the company sees the 2.0 version as the culmination of its efforts. Released in March, the upgrade is "the cornerstone of our professional application endeavor," says Tom McDonald, a Final Cut product manager.

Version 2.0 won honors at May's National Association of Broadcasters conference and Final Cut interest is steadily rising in Hollywood and New York -- wherever production is done, says Ben Kozuch, founder and president of Future Media Concepts, a chain of editing institutes that trains editors. "The enrollment in Final Cut classes is busy and growing," he says. FMC has expanded the curriculum and added more classes to account for what Kozuch estimates is a steady 20 percent rise in demand. "Only a few months ago, you had to have Avid on your résumé. Now, you still should have Avid on the résumé, but more and more places are using Final Cut and you may be able to find work if that's all you know."

"This is a new phenomenon with Final Cut Pro," he adds. "It's only happened in the past six months."

Consider WGBH. The Boston public television station was one of the first to buy into Avid's pitch, and most of the editors and producers are still happy with the product. But as a noncommercial station, "we're cost-conscious and we're always looking for anything that's going to be cheaper for us," says David McCarn, chief technologist. So, a few months ago, WGBH bought several copies of Final Cut Pro 2.0. After using it to edit a handful of short films, ads and an episode of the American Experience documentary series "Zoot Suit Riots," producers report that the program is perfect for certain kinds of shows. Anything shot on digital video (as opposed to film), newsy segments that need to be edited quickly or in the field and projects with minimal budgets all fit under the Final Cut umbrella.

WGBH has also benefited indirectly from Final Cut. More and more young filmmakers who use the product have started knocking on the station's door, some with success. Former WGBH intern Jon Sahula persuaded the station to screen two short films edited with Final Cut Pro. "It's an economical way to welcome more storytellers into WGBH," says Lucy Sholley, the station's director of media relations. Final Cut, she says, has "helped us bring new talent along."

Some filmmakers say that Final Cut lets them quickly create what they want on a reasonable budget. "Whenever people try to do an independent project, any kind of independent project, they have to quit and work on other things that will make them enough money to survive," says Mark Foster, a director of commercials who just finished using Final Cut to edit "69 Minutes of Fame," a documentary on a punk band. "So if you need to use an Avid, it's going to take longer and cost you an arm and a leg, just to rent one. But with Final Cut, you can do it cheaper and faster on your own computer."

Apple has taken advantage of faster processing speeds and married that power to its own reputation as a friend to creativity, says Harry Marks, a veteran digital artist and editor who has consulted for ABC, NBC, Paramount and other major Hollywood players. As a result, the company has opened up the industry, and Avid may have reason to fear the competition. "Anyone can get Final Cut," he says. "It's accessible and stable. Avid's probably a little afraid because they've made [editing] such a black art. But the truth is that Final Cut Pro is incredibly powerful."

But Apple hardly deserves all the credit for crafting Final Cut Pro's appeal. The market for film and video, streaming online, in corporate training and through the expansion of cable, continues to grow. Editing opportunities abound, as do the pool and diversity of film editors. Plus, some say, Avid primed the market for its new competitor by earning a reputation for being exactly what young filmmakers don't want: static, hardware-centric and expensive.

When Avid started, the blackbox formula made sense. Knowing that Hollywood's old guard would resist anything new out of fears of unreliability, Avid focused on stability and comprehensiveness more than flexibility, says Jeremy O'Neal at the Bay Area Video Coalition, a nonprofit post-production training facility in San Francisco. With souped-up Apple and IBM units, proprietary cards and a color-coded keyboard, the company created a closed solution that could be managed easily and did everything editors wanted.

The system's speed and strength put it a step above Tektronix Lightworks and other nonlinear systems that came out around the same time. Gradually, the industry started spending millions on Avid's two main systems, Composer and Symphony, making Avid the de facto standard. This is still true today. Ninety-six percent of the shows on television are cut with an Avid, and there are more than 75,000 certified Avid editors, according to company figures.

But at some point over the past few years, Avid users started to feel frustrated with the company's constrictions. "They've pissed a lot of people off," says Jon Ettinger, executive producer at FilmCore, a San Francisco post-production firm focusing on high-end commercials. "They announce upgrades to their system, then don't make it compatible with older versions, so what you just bought often becomes quickly obsolete. Then you have to go back and buy everything through Avid. It's quite a racket. They've know that they're the only game in town, so they take advantage of it."

To be fair, Avid does work with some other products, QuickTime, for example, and its file capacity is far greater than what most standard Apple computers can offer. Filmmakers wanting advanced special effects still require an expensive Avid workstation and many say that Avid is more reliable than the cheaper options. And regardless of Avid's steep price and inflexibility, FilmCore and other post-production companies aren't planning to abandon it. It still beats Final Cut "in terms of processing speed and other features," Ettinger says.

Yet, Avid is no longer the fastest option in every category. Final Cut is "far more adaptable," says Wachter. It lets editors easily drop in images from QuickTime, Adobe PhotoShop and other software, and third-party developers have already started expanding the product's reach. At the very least, it's an appealing alternative. Those who either can't afford an Avid or dislike Avid's "island" status, as one editor described it, now have another option.

Computer historians might find some irony in the fact that Apple is, in this battle, being praised for being open, for beating a company that's regularly denounced for creating closed "turnkey" systems, those that lock proprietary hardware and software together. After all, didn't Steve Jobs insist that proprietary systems work best, even as his computers lost market share to IBM clones?

Despite Final Cut's success, Avid argues that its products represent a better value. Though the company wouldn't comment specifically on Final Cut Pro, Charlie Russell, a product marketing manager, pointed out that Avid remains the top choice for the vast majority of film and television projects. The company has also had to achieve "the democratization of Avid video," he says, releasing a low-end version of its product that works with digital video and competes with Final Cut. It retails for $700 more than Final Cut, but the company maintains that sales are brisk.

Which raises the question: With the film industry continuing to expand and diversify, is there room for both Avid and Apple? Perhaps. Many editors say the jury is still out on Final Cut. The next few versions will determine whether Apple beats Avid or simply joins its market. In the meantime, though, Final Cut's rise seems poised to divide the industry. On one side are the veterans who swear by Avid. Doug Wellman, for example, the former director of "The Facts of Life" and a professor at the USC School of Cinema, which uses only Avid, argues that Avid is and will be "what the pros use."

But there's also a growing, wily contingent of filmmakers, editors and educators who are determined to topple what some call "the Avid monopoly." They're convinced that Avid won't survive the oncoming onslaught.

"None of us are using Avid unless we can get it for free," says Wachter. "As we age and move into the industry, we are going to take Final Cut Pro with us and slay the giant. Avid is dead. It's a dinosaur."

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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