Thoughts on iMovie, Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express, and the future

Last week, Grant Brünner posed a great question: Why is iMovie so much better than Final Cut Express?

From the article:

“More often than not, I find myself using iMovie to do the majority of my production. Why? Because it’s fast and easy. Final Cut Express is ancient by software standards, and it takes longer for me to accomplish many of the same tasks in FCE.”

I think a lot of people in Grant’s position would feel the same way, and certainly FCE hasn’t had much done to it in several years. So what gives? Why all the development of iMovie and nothing in several years for FCE?

Where to begin

I think the biggest thing here is remembering the history of each program.

FCE is intended to be a watered-down/entry-level Final Cut Pro. When Final Cut Pro first came along, it was heavily marketed toward filmmakers, not just videographers. And most of the film and television industry at that time used Avid.


Avid Media Composer was developed in the late 80s as one of the first non-linear editing systems for professionals, and it was developed with film and television editors in mind. Many of the basic concepts of Media Composer — the names of tools/techniques, using ‘bins’ instead of ‘folders,’ etc. — are basically digital versions of working with film on a flatbed. Even the UI (two displays over a timeline of filmstrips) mimicked the flatbed setup. While certain new techniques/principles were developed within iterations of the software, the basic premise — digitally mimicking the flatbed experience — was crucial in moving editors from physically cutting film to using computers.

Additionally, there was a lot borrowed from tape editing, as Media Composer was meant for the television industry as well. The basic concept of three-point editing comes from editing with two tape decks. Even current Final Cut Pro training software details the idea of three-point editing — for instance, an in-point (1) and out-point (2) on the source clip programmed to an in-point (3) in the timeline.

In order for Media Composer (and thus Premiere and Final Cut) to be accepted by the professional industry, Avid had to translate physical processes into digital ones. By digitizing the tape editing process, editing was now not only non-linear, but also non-destructive — if you screwed up, you didn’t have to start all over with another tape.

Other NLEs

Avid set the bar for non-linear editing. Adobe made Premiere, which I started using in high school. Its interface borrows heavily from the Avid experience, since that’s what anyone with any non-linear experience was familiar with.

Final Cut Pro

After its acquisition by Apple from Macrovision, FCP was primarily developed to compete with Avid and Premiere, spanning projects from films to wedding videos. FCP’s software-based editing was meant to do anything a $100k+ Avid system could do, but be more easily upgradable for a LOT less money. Software would be $1k-ish, and even a hardware upgrade just meant buying a new Mac desktop ($2-5k). It was also developed around the new FireWire interface, so its DV tools were on the front of the game.

At the time of Final Cut’s official version one release, I was a student at North Carolina School of the Arts, and Apple established a good relationship with our school to implement Final Cut Pro into our films.

Steven Gonzales (one of the editing faculty at the time) was the first to use FCP to cut a feature film — David Gordon Green’s “George Washington” (on imdb and hulu plus) — that went back to a film print, quite a while before Cold Mountain got a lot of notoriety for doing so.1 My senior class was the first class to use Final Cut Pro to cut our Senior theses, which then went back to 16mm film prints.

As we were graduating, Hollywood was just starting to look at FCP as a possible alternative to Avid. It took a few years to catch on, because most editors had been cutting on Avid for years and didn’t care to switch, especially when they had hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in their Avid.

I’ve personally witnessed the slow transition and development of tech tools amongst industry players. Film school kiddos and young indies quickly accept the newest tech. Pros in the industry, though, are constantly working and are very busy people. It’s much easier to just keep using what you know and keep getting work done. FCP has undergone a lot of changes since its first version, and yet the UI is still pretty similar. Familiarity is important to an industry pro; she doesn’t have time to relearn where everything is.

So as FCP developed, it supplemented this slow growth in the film industry by also growing among pro-sumer filmmakers and videographers — a demographic that just didn’t exist in the last century, due to the chasm of costs in technology. Now that FCP has a good hold on both the pro and pro-sumer markets, it’ll be interesting to see what Apple has in store for the new Final Cut Suite which is about to be deubted.

So, long story longer, though FCP is accessible and usable by high school students and the amateur filmmaker, it is designed for the film industry professional editor, and it is meant to stand on the shoulders of decades of film editing theory.


iMovie, on the other hand, was developed differently. Early versions of iMovie were like ultra-simple Avid interfaces. It was similar to Pinnacle, or a lot of other cheap, off-the-shelf editing software — barebones three-point editing, maybe add some music, titles, and transitions.

Shortly after it added HD to the mix a few years ago, iMovie went through a huge UI redesign, which most hardcore iMovie users hated.

The move was perplexing to most, but I now believe that Apple did with it what it often does when it creates or acquires a new piece of software — design it for what it’s supposed to do, first, then add in all the stuff that’s supposed to be there in the first place. You can see this with cut/paste on iOS, box selecting tracks in Soundtrack Pro, etc.

I believe Apple, with a team headed by Randy Ubillos, redesigned iMovie around a core set of priorities, which were not primarily about editing, and therefore lost some of the editing tools in the process.

The latest versions of iMovie has worked out most of what people were missing out  on with the last iMovie HD, but at the time, people couldn’t conceive why Apple would redesign a program that was loved and used by so many for seemingly no reason. So what was the new priority that superseded even editing in the new iMovie?

The answer can be found in the year of that new UI release — 2007, the same year the iPhone was introduced. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

If what Steve says is true, something like the iPad has been in development since 2000 or so. The tablet project was shelved to develop the phone, but clearly a rethinking was already taking shape deep within Apple.

Look at all the UI shifts in the entire iLife suite — iMovie, iPhoto, GarageBand … they’re all very touch-friendly. Today we have iMovie on the iPhone and both iMovie and GarageBand on the iPad, completely using touch interfaces that are almost identical to their desktop counterparts. Want to know where OSX and iOS are headed? Watch the iLife suite.

The speculative future

This is all speculation, but I think Apple will probably develop iMovie for the blogger/vodcaster/hobbyist the way it has developed GarageBand for the singer/songwriter. Sure, you could record an entire album with GarageBand, but most musicians use it to record demos and scratch tracks. The iPad version makes this even more practical; it’s the perfect tool for it. And sure, you could probably edit a feature film on iMovie, but it’s the wrong tool for that. iMovie is for home and hobby use and will be developed as such; iMovie for iPhone and iPad are great proof. Apple will continue to add some advanced features to iMovie, but it won’t ever approach the nature of Final Cut Pro. It will be along the lines of the home/hobby user. Think about the additions: face recognition, trailer templates, title themes, etc.

Likewise, Final Cut Pro will likely not develop a user interface identical to that of iMovie any time soon. They no doubt plan on making it more touch-friendly, but I don’t know if the installed FCP user-base will accept a giant shift in UI between versions. General home users raised enough of a stink when it happened to iMovie. With Final Cut Pro, where a lot of people depend on the software for their livelihood, a giant redesign could be a huge PR nightmare for Apple. FCP is so customizable, you have all different kinds of power-users. Some rely on buttons. Some on keyboard shortcuts. Some are mousers. Corporate commercial guys use it one way. VFX guys use it another way. Filmmakers another. To drastically change the UI is to break one or more systems for a group of professional users that need it to work today. A complete FCP redesign has the hard task of being written in new code, updating to beyond today’s expected features, and yet still remaining compatible with the user base and, more importantly, the industries. This doesn’t mean it can’t ever change; it just means change has to be slow and inclusive.

Then again, Apple is never afraid to say things like, “Okay, you can keep your little buttons, or you can edit Canon 5D and RED footage natively in 64-bit.” Obviously the customer will eventually choose power over habit, but it would mean making the transition at a semi-convenient time (i.e., not in the middle of a huge project), if such a thing exists.

Personally, I think the types of redesigns you’re going to see with the new Final Cut Suite are better integration and round-tripping between apps in the suite, a UI redesign for Color to make it more Cocoa-looking, better native support for MPEG and RED formats — lots of under the hood and ‘how’-type stuff.

Since FCP is likely undergoing a code rewrite, expect a different UI, but I think even UI redesigns will probably be along the lines of how the editor interacts with the media — a better log and capture/transfer system, better media management, better window management, more controls in the timeline. Expect to see a lot of Lion-y type things as well — full-screen mode, HUDs, gestures, etc. And I’m betting the best improvements will be things you can’t see directly, but rather you can see the effects of — 64-bit processing, better use of the GPU, more real-time effects and transitions, better multi-cam and live/streaming video options, etc.

Final Cut Express

Which finally trickles us back to Final Cut Express…

Final Cut Pro was developed for film and television editors, and the current iMovie was developed for touch devices and the home user. Final Cut Express shouldn’t be viewed as an in-between program, but rather as a teaser for Final Cut Pro.

FCE isn’t built from the ground up for anything. It’s stripped back from full-blown FCP. It’s a leaner program with less options and less features. Honestly, the only reason I think it exists is to get students and newbies hooked on Final Cut until they can afford to make the plunge and buy the full suite. I’m guessing Apple created FCE as a way of getting high-schoolers and college kids into the FCP family. FCE is only $150 or so at education rates and runs on the cheaper machines. That’s a pretty affordable entry price if film or videography is something of which you want to make a career.

Why hasn’t FCE been updated in years? If you look at the FCP upgrades, they’ve mostly been with regard to professional application. It’s these very items that are stripped from FCE, intentionally crippling it to make it a weaker program. Since the current version of FCE does pretty much what a bare bones FCP would do (even the UI hasn’t changed much), there’s little reason for Apple to spend a lot of development time trying to spiffy it up.

All that to say…

So if you’re like Grant — a video editor, but not a professional film/television editor in the respective industries — I wouldn’t wait around for Apple to make Final Cut Express into something more usable for what you’re probably doing every week. I think that’s an exercise in futility. It’s kind of like dulling a chainsaw to butter some bread.

FCE reduxes will follow FCP reduxes. So while there will likely soon be a new Final Cut Express, I assure you, what you want out of FCE probably has little to do with what pros want out of FCP. Instead, push (pray/hope) for iMovie to continue growing and to develop the tools you feel it’s missing.

What do you think?

What do you expect to see out of a new Final Cut Suite? What do you want to see? What do you think are some of the motivating factors for the changes that are coming?

Further Reading

  • A great piece by Philip Hodgetts about what he thinks the new Final Cut will be like and why.
  • A comprehensive history of the origins of Final Cut Pro by Daniel Eran.


1. Walter Murch edited Cold Mountain with Final Cut Pro. Murch was personally trained with the assistance of my friend and classmate Steve Phares at Digitial Film Tree using much of the techniques we learned at NCSA from Steven Gonzales. The story goes that Digital Film Tree even modified one of the editing desks so Murch could edit standing up, as he always does.

Paul Skidmore is an independent filmmaker in Tennessee. When not producing/directing films through parabolos, he helps out other professional and independent productions by using the latest mobile and digital techniques to streamline production workflows and free the artists to create.… Full Bio