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Cutting Contest: Four Editors Compare Avid with Final Cut Pro

By Robert Stone

Back in the 20th century, filmmakers had to cut on film by hand or the equally arduous off-line tape method. In the early ’90s, several non-linear editing systems appeared, such as the Media 100 and Lightworks. But it was the arrival of the user-friendly Avid that captured the imagination of editors everywhere, allowing them to digitize their footage onto a computer hard drive and manipulate the material faster and with infinite possibilities.

Now, in the new millennium and the current digital frontier, there’s a new kid on the block—Final Cut Pro—and documentary filmmakers are taking notice.

Final Cut Pro was developed by Apple. The premise was simple: come up with a non-linear based editing system that allows users to edit with the same speed and efficiency as the Avid, but at a fraction of the cost and in ways that cater to the digital world of filmmaking.

So, is Final Cut Pro really up to par with the almighty Avid? International Documentary recently sat down with some top editors who have worked extensively on both systems to hear their thoughts. The participants included:

David Potter (Editor of numerous documentaries, educational videos, and shorts; recently edited the feature documentary Fantastic Collections using FCP).

B. J. Sears (Editor of The Unbearable Lightness of Being [co-editor], Virtuosity and several documentaries; also edited the upcoming Showtime film Bojangles using FCP).

Daniel Fort (Assistant editor on El Mariachi and Stuart Little; recently assistant-edited the Showtime film Bojangles using FCP).

Stephen Mark (Editor of episodes of The X-Files and Dark Angel; edited the Oscar®- nominated documentary The Man On Lincoln’s Nose using FCP).


Was it difficult switching to FCP from Avid?

Sears: When I interviewed with Showtime, they said, ‘We’ll be doing this in Final Cut Pro,’ and I went, ‘Fine. I’ve never used Final Cut Pro. Do you have a book?’ I got the program and put it on my laptop and came home and played with it for a week before the show started. And on my first day, I was able to cut scenes. The transition from Avid to FCP is pretty painless.

Potter: I think a misconception about Final Cut was that people didn’t think it was going to be able to do serious projects. Just commercials, shorts and stuff. But on Fascinating Collections, we did an hour-long documentary, editing in pieces of 15 minutes. We shot on DV-cam, and it worked like magic.

Mark: We had a slightly different experience. The version I had (Version 1.2.5) was a little buggy. What I find is that the people who like FCP are people who like computer technology and love figuring ways to work around issues when they don’t perform exactly the way you were led to believe. But if you’re editing right now and don’t feel like learning how FCP manages media and stuff like that, then you may not want to commit yourself to the program.


What’s the best reason to use Final Cut Pro?

Mark: The number one reason is money. The number two reason is if you’re shooting in mini-DV and you don’t have hours of dailies. The fact that you can input it and output it back to your DV camera without losing any quality is a major plus.

Fort: It’s amazing how little you really need to get the system up and running. The entry level on Final Cut Pro really can be an i-Mac. I’m fully convinced that someone can do an entire long form project on an i-Mac. An i-Mac DV is about $1,000. Get a high capacity FireWire drive. Digitize your footage at DV resolution and compress it onto that drive, and it’s an excellent first-class system that can handle long-form and output broadcast-quality material.

Potter: The company that I work for now, Canter, is quadrupling its output this year. They just did tests on Final Cut Pro, were fully satisfied, and are now going to go with the Final Cut systems and keep the two old Avids simply for image correction and stuff.


What are the major differences between Final Cut Pro and the Avid?

Sears: The biggest difference was that with Final Cut Pro, I was home at 6:00 every night. The reason was because I had my G3 laptop, and we just took all our files and compressed them, put them on a FireWire drive and I brought it home, and I had the whole show on a 45-gig FireWire drive. So I would either cut scenes at night or I could think about it during the weekend and tweak something, and then you just walk back into the cutting room, re-link and you’re there. In fact, at one point I had to go somewhere on an airplane, and I knew I couldn’t take the big drive with me, so I just digitized the scene into the hard drive on the laptop, and I actually cut some scenes on the airplane.

Fort: Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. For editing long-form with lots of material, the Avid is still superior, although Final Cut Pro has been catching up very rapidly. Where Final Cut Pro really becomes superior to Avid is in a lot of the effects it can do. We had lots of effects on our show, multiple layered green screens, etc., and we found that these same effects would also have to be rendered on the Avid. Some of them would have been impossible to even attempt on the Avid Film Composer.

Potter: A problem with Avid is that you literally have to get lessons, or no one is going to let you on their Avid. It’s about $1,000 for basic Avid lessons. But you can get Final Cut at home and teach yourself. If you have any questions, you just go to and they’ll answer all your questions. So it allows much more of an entry level into filmmaking. It’s so user-friendly, anyone can use it.


Any problems using FCP?

Mark: Final Cut Pro doesn’t have a very good way of assembling cut scenes into one big scene. One of the most wonderful things about computer-editing, as opposed to film- editing, is the ability to keep all of your different versions. You want to be able to have your earlier versions intact. The problem with FCP is that if you have a lot of rendered material, which we did, every time you copy and then paste that into a new sequence, all of the rendered material becomes unrendered. So you have to re-render everything, and the longer your sequence becomes, the more time you have to sit there and wait.

Potter: That’s what makes the Avid faster. With documentaries, you have more cross- dissolves than you would in a narrative, so waiting can be a pain.

Mark: My understanding is that they’ve addressed a lot of this in FCP 2.

Sears: Final Cut Pro has to do a few things to get up to Avid, and Avid has to do a few things to get as cheap or cheaper than they are, so the playing field gets leveled. I think it’s good for everybody.


Would you recommend one system over the other for documentary filmmaking?

Fort: One of the things we did which would be ideal for documentary filmmakers is that after we digitized off DV-cam work tapes, we compressed at a photo JPEG resolution. There’s a feature in Final Cut Pro called batch export. We batch-exported everything to a medium-quality photo JPEG and were able to get the entire movie on about 30 gigabytes. We had this little 45-gigabyte Fire Wire drive and put the entire movie on it, and it’s great because you or the assistant editor can make changes or even work on it, and all you have to do is send the project back and forth. It could even be e-mailed from one system to the other and then re-linked. So that would be something great for documentary filmmakers. You could have all of your media on a small drive and it actually works better because it’s less stress on the system. I know some documentary projects have hundreds of hours of material, and to have all of that on-line at a very high quality is difficult, but you can definitely work on it at a higher compression.

Potter: Also, portability. I just talked to a guy who did a DV-cam documentary shoot, and he said that besides being cheaper, he used FCP to edit his footage at night on a laptop and was able to assemble rough cuts on the road. You couldn’t do that with an Avid—unless you didn’t mind hauling all that hardware on your trip.


Will FCP revolutionize the industry like Avid did in the ’90s?

Fort: Definitely. Students working on their i-Macs will now have all this experience and will be able to walk into a studio and be very comfortable working with it. Things now that have to be done in hardware in the future will be done in software. Things are just going to get faster, better, cheaper.

Mark: When I started working with the Avid, I said this is it; this is the future. Even though at first it crashed and things wouldn’t work. And if Final Cut Pro can fix and improve all the things that need improving, who knows?

Sears: Now you can get a DV camera and Final Cut Pro and make movies, so there are going to be some great moviemakers. There are going to be some lousy ones, too, because now everybody thinks they can do it. But among all the rubble, there should be some real gems.


Author’s Note: At press time, Final Cut Pro 2 was announced with new features, including real-time editing, which removes the need for rendering, as well as improved media management and compositing capabilities.

Rob Stone is an award-winning Producer/Director/Writer of several documentaries and specials, which he has produced through his company Vienna Productions. He can be reached at