Understanding Final Cut Pro HD

Final Cut Pro HD offers the most painless and inexpensive way to edit high-quality HD projects. In essence, Final Cut Pro HD makes working with HD as flexible and convenient as working with standard-definition DV video, and that's a huge accomplishment, considering how unwieldy HD video has been to work with.

HD stands for high definition, and it's a video format (or a collection of related formats) that offers two major improvements over the everyday, old-school NTSC video (also known as standard-definition video) that has been the standard for decades:

  • Improved image quality
  • Wide-screen aspect ratio

The way things were

To appreciate Final Cut Pro HD, you should understand how earlier versions of Final Cut worked with HD video (the difference is the same as the difference between night and day). Final Cut has been HD-compatible since Version 3, but that compatibility required you to have some serious hardware. For instance, back then, your Mac needed a third-party capture card (which cost between $2,000 and $4,000) that could connect to HD videotape decks, capture digital video from HD tapes, and then play that HD video smoothly in Final Cut. To store all the digital video, you also needed a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks), which is a collection of very large, very fast hard drives that work as though they're a single huge hard drive. A typical HD-friendly RAID has 3-1/2 terabytes of storage (a terabyte equals roughly 1,000 gigabytes) and costs about $11,000. And, because HD video could consume as much as 9.6 gigabytes per minute, even a big RAID could comfortably store only about five hours of video!

What's more, a true HD system wouldn't be complete without an HD preview monitor — a high-end HD television that's matched to professional standards and lets you see the footage you're editing just as your audience would on an HD set. These types of preview monitors can cost around $20,000!

Finally, even with all this expensive gear, Final Cut could not create real-time previews of many (if any) of the effects you may apply to your HD video. If you wanted to do lots of fancy transitions or montages of moving imagery or color-correction effects, you would have to painstakingly render them to see how they would look, make changes, re-render, make more changes, re-render, and so on.

In other words, using earlier versions of Final Cut Pro to edit HD was an expensive and potentially tedious proposition!

Final Cut Pro HD makes HD easy

Final Cut Pro HD has changed everything about working in HD — as long as you're willing to work with the new HD format, DVCPRO HD, developed by Panasonic. DVCPRO HD is basically regular HD video that has been compressed (like a JPEG picture is compressed, or, more accurately, like DV video is compressed. That compression is the key: It means that HD video requires much less data to describe than uncompressed HD — for instance, the compressed HD needs only as much as 840 megabytes per minute rather than uncompressed HD, at as much as 9.6 gigabytes per minute — but the compression doesn't appreciably affect the quality of the HD imagery. In other words, you still enjoy super-crisp-looking HD video!

Because DVCPRO HD doesn't require as much data as uncompressed HD, it's easy to manage and offers a number of benefits when you're editing, such as the ones described in this list:

  • It uses non-RAID disk drives: Because a smaller amount of data is describing DVCPRO HD video, you don't need to have a RAID hard drive to store the data or play it smoothly. You still need a fast hard drive to work with DVCPRO HD, though — for exampkle, a 7200 RPM Serial ATA drive that works with Apple G5 desktop computers — but that's a far cry from a RAID, which can run several thousands of dollars. If you want your Mac to store lots of HD video, or if you plan to work on projects that merge lots of different HD video clips so that they have to play at one time (as with a montage or picture-in-picture tricks), a RAID may still be handy, but not necessary.
  • You see real-time previews of effects: Because DVCPRO HD video requires less data, thanks to its compression, Final Cut Pro can generate real-time previews of effects such as transitions, color corrections, picture-in-picture effects, and other image manipulations. When Final Cut is running on a fast Mac, like a dual CPU G5 PowerMac, it can offer the same level of real-time effects as though it were working with DV video!
  • No HD capture card is required: DVCPRO HD video also lets you skip buying an expensive capture card to capture HD video. You can use a simple FireWire cable to connect a DVCPRO HD videotape deck to your Mac (the same kind of FireWire cable you use to connect your DV camera), and that's all you need!

Thanks to this smaller size, you can use a much more standard Mac, with non-RAID drives, to work with HD and enjoy real-time previews of effects!

Here's a bonus: Final Cut Pro HD lets you use an Apple Cinema Display as an HD preview monitor so that you can watch your HD edits on a true HD screen, and not on the small Final Cut Viewer and Canvas windows. Sure, a 23-inch Cinema Display isn't exactly cheap ($1,999 at the time this article was written), but it's much cheaper than buying a professional HD preview monitor. In addition, it gives you much of the same functionality (professionals will still want to use a conventional HD preview monitor for doing ultra precise color correction, but many projects can live without it, and even if you can't, you can always take your project to a top-tier color-correction specialist right before you're finished). If you want to use a Cinema Display as a preview display for HD, choose View --> Video Playback --> Digital Desktop Cinema Preview.

DVCPRO HD has one "gotcha": It doesn't support the 1080 24p flavor of HD. DVCPRO HD can work in both 720p or 1080i, but if you want 1080 24p (for instance, if you ever want to make a movie that could be theatrically distributed, which the 24p format is best qualified for), you have to bring it into Final Cut as uncompressed HD video. You need an HD capture card and fast RAID drives to work with it, and you don't enjoy real-time previews of many effects. On the bright side, Final Cut does support a 24 frames-per-second version of the 720p HD format, so you can use this as a fallback option if 24 frames-per-second playback is very important to you (though you won't get the super-crisp picture resolution of the 1080i 24p format).

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