If you’re just getting into – or considering getting into – video production, how you edit your projects will be just as important as how you shoot them. And, just as you need to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the camera you use to capture your footage, you need to consider carefully the platform on which you’ll be assembling that footage.
For years, my advice to video production newbies was the same: Get a Mac, and put Final Cut Pro on it. The software and hardware are made by the same company, so there are no compatibility issues, and you don’t have to buy any additional hardware.
The basic premise – that Apple software and hardware work together to provide a less error-prone editing environment – is still valid, but the big picture isn’t as simple as it was a few years ago.
Traditionally, PCs have been for “suits,” and Macs have been for “creatives.” However, just as the line between suits and creatives has become blurred in the past few years, the demographics of Mac owners and PC owners have become less homogenous.
Perhaps the most telling indication of this shift is that Adobe’s new creative suite of programs – CS5 – actually runs faster on out-of-the-box PCs than on out-of-the-box Macs. Moreover, not only do Apple computers cost more than PCs of equivalent horsepower, but the nVidia video cards that accelerate the performance of CS5 aren’t even available as an option on new Macs, meaning that they have to be purchased aftermarket, driving up the machine cost even more.
I bring up Adobe CS5 for two reasons. First, almost every video editor has to use Photoshop at some point, and usually quite frequently, which makes its performance an issue. Secondly, CS5 includes Premiere Pro, a traditional runner-up to Final Cut Pro, which now outperforms Final Cut on several key metrics, most notably render time and native support of HDSLR footage (which has to be transcoded to be effectively used by Final Cut Pro).
Only Steve Jobs’ inner circle knows what’s planned for Final Cut, but since Apple has spent the last few years focusing the vast majority of its resources on developing the iPod/iPhone/iPad family of gadgets, pro users have been left scratching their heads and wondering whether vague promises of “awesome” updates will come to fruition, or whether Final Cut Studio will be left to whither on the vine while Apple pursues higher volume, higher profit-margin consumer electronics.
Another new element in the equation is the emergence of truly high-quality open-source (free) software. The 3D modeling and animation program Blender 3D includes a full-featured video editor, complete with node-based keyer and effects, and the Academy and Emmy-award winning editing software Lightworks (used on blockbusters like “Shutter Island”) will soon be released in an open-source version. Numerous other open-source editing programs are being developed by smaller enterprises as well. Any one of these programs (particularly Lightworks, in my opinion) could prove to be a real threat to Final Cut Studio and its $1,000 pricetag.
While Blender and some of the smaller open-source editors run on Mac, Lightworks will initially only be available on PC, and a number of other open-source editors run exclusively on Linux workstations, which are usually built from PC hardware.
As of now, there’s no clear winner. Apple has synergy and a long track record on its side, while PCs are more cost-effective, and offer more software options, including the unleashed Adobe Premier Pro. The good news is that this means you can stick with whatever you already have, and make it work. The bad news is that if you’re looking to invest time and money into a system you’ll be able to use for years to come, you may as well flip a coin. Video editing is complex, and every software package has its own way of approaching all the different moving parts. There’s a substantial learning curve associated with switching platforms, and it becomes difficult (or impossible) to access projects created in a different system.
I’m not ready to jump ship from Apple yet, but I’m keeping a close eye on the horizon. If Apple leap-frogs Premiere with a truly impressive Final Cut Studio update, I’ll be happy to stay where I am. On the other hand, if Lightworks or Premiere has a substantial advantage in power, quality, or flexibility by the time I’m ready to buy another computer, I will seriously consider switching sides. My advice to novices would be to avoid paying too much for anything at this point: if you have a Mac, use iMovie, or get an old copy of Final Cut on eBay. If you’re on a PC, pick up a “lite” version of Premiere and see how you like it. Either way, don’t get too comfortable, because the next year or two are likely to bring substantial changes to the editing playing field.