Strengths and Weaknesses of Final Cut Server

Posted: May 15, 2011

[ This article was first published in the June, 2008, issue of
Larry's Final Cut Pro Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]


ServerI spent several days this last week in Cupertino getting trained on Final Cut Server. It was Train-the-Trainer training, so we went into a lot of depth on the software.

This is an amazing product, but it is not yet for everyone. What I want to do here is outline some of it’s strengths and weaknesses so you can make a more informed decision on whether you want to make the plunge now, or wait.

Final Cut Server has the potential to be significantly helpful. But, right now, it is still in its version 1.0 state. There are some obvious, and less obvious, limitations.

NOTE: I’m not able to include screen shots from the product, because Apple has not made review copies of the software available.

BACKGROUND

Final Cut Server is a database, a library, that stores media; stills, audio, video, plus any other documents you want to track. While it can be used by a single editor, it’s real power comes when you have many people that need to access the same media.

Final Cut Server is a server-based application which allows users on both Macintosh and Windows computers to access this shared pool of media to find what they need from a library that could include hundreds of thousands of clips, view it, add annotations and other metadata, then use automation to speed routine tasks; such as publishing to the web, sharing with other users, project approvals, and so on.

I was also struck that it has an interface more closely related to Color than the white background of most Mac applications, or the medium-gray of the Final Cut Studio apps. While interesting, it makes screen shots harder to read or print.

WHAT’S GOOD

Final Cut Server is dead-easy to use.

I could teach a group of end-users everything they need to know to successfully use the program in less than a day, and that includes the time spent installing the software.

Final Cut Server runs identically on both Mac and Windows systems.

Because Server is a Java-application, the interface and operation of the software is the same on both platforms.

Installation is easy.

Both the Server and Client versions are simple to install.

Final Cut Server is scalable.

There’s no real limit to how many clips it can track; from the hundreds of thousands to the millions.

Adding media can be as easy as drag-and-drop.

There are many different ways to get media into Server:

  • Drag-and-drop individual files
  • Scanning a Watch folder
  • Sending files from Final Cut Pro
  • Scanning an entire disk, or set of disks.

Once the media is stored into the Final Cut Server database, it is relatively easy to add keywords and other metadata (data that describes each file) to each clip to simplify finding the right clip later through searches.

It can be extensively customized and automated.

As you’ll see below, this is both a strength and a weakness.

Final Cut Server smoothly integrates with Final Cut Pro projects.

As long as all your media is properly linked inside your Final Cut Pro project, dragging the project into Server will automatically add all related project media. This is very cool. However, this integration is not true for Motion, DVD Studio Pro, LiveType, or Soundtrack Pro projects (see below).

Final Cut Server supports check-in / checkout and version control for clips and projects.

Check-in/checkout means that when one person is revising a file, no one else can change it. Others can look at it, but checkout prevents two people working on the same file at the same time, thereby erasing each other’s work.

 

Version control means that Server will automatically make a backup copy of a file so that if you need to revert back to an earlier version, you can easily do so. As long as everyone remembers to use check-in/checkout, and doesn’t try to subvert the system, this works great.

Final Cut Server allows collaboration both inside and outside the company.

This is true, but a bit simplistic. Collaboration, and outside access, is determined by how the system is set up. I will have more to say on that later. Also, outside collaboration requires a VPN.

Final Cut Server seamlessly delivers clips in multiple formats.

Also true, but also a bit, shall we say, over-simplified. Final Cut Server will do what ever it is set up to do. And getting it setup is where the rubber meets the road.

You can learn more about Final Cut Server at: http://www.apple.com/finalcutserver/

SEPARATING THE REALITY FROM THE MARKETING

My class was taught by Matt Geller, which was a delight in itself.

Matt Geller has written an outstanding book called Getting Started with Final Cut Server, published by Peachpit Press. Before investing in this software, I strongly recommend you leaf through this, because if you’re getting more and more interested in what you’re reading, you’ll probably do fine with Final Cut Server. But, if your eyes start glazing over before you get to Chapter 3, then Final Cut Server may not be a good option at this time.

That’s because, at its core, Final Cut Server is a database. People who will be successful implementing Final Cut Server are those individuals that understand how databases work and get excited about creating scripts, what Server calls “automations.”

For me, this was the key break-through in my understanding – before end-users can use it, Server needs to be implemented. Final Cut Server won’t help me with my editing, nor does it provide multi-user editing capabilities. What it does is allow multiple people to upload, find, annotate, and process media files.

Again, remember, that Server is a database. The person running it needs to think like a database, not an editor. This person, called the Admin, needs to have very strong database skills, strong IT/networking skills, with only a limited knowledge of media.

Final Cut Server runs best on an Xsan, but does not require it. However, it does require at least the following to run well:

  • An Intel/Mac computer with lots of speed and processors. Either a MacPro or XServe. This needs to be a separate device, not shared on another servers.
  • Very fast attached storage, either an Xsan volume, or a RAID
  • Separate attached storage for archives
  • Lots of RAM
  • High-speed network connections to all users on the system – Gigabit Ethernet is strongly recommended.
  • A VPN for users outside the system

While this list is not exhaustive, it does indicate one thing – if you are thinking of adding Final Cut Server, you need to also plan to add a significant amount of other gear to support it.

Final Cut ServerWHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Final Cut Servers don’t talk to other Final Cut Servers.

If you are thinking of implementing a home office / branch office strategy, Final Cut Server doesn’t think that way. You will be better off having all offices contribute to a single database on a single Server system.

Final Cut Server does not automatically import media from Motion, LiveType, DVD Studio Pro, or Soundtrack Pro projects.

All the applications in Final Cut Studio use what’s called “linked” media. This means that the media is not inside the project, the project simply points to it. In the case of Final Cut Pro, all this “pointed-to” media is automatically imported into Server. However, for all these other programs, you will need to find and upload all related files manually. This is both time-consuming and error-prone.

Final Cut Server does not edit video, nor allow multi-user access to the same FCP project.

Final Cut Server is a cataloging and review database that allows multiple users to view the same media, add keywords and other metadata, and automate the process of importing and exporting data in a variety of formats to both local and remote devices.

Server Automations can not be saved or shared.

An automation consists of two parts: a trigger and a response. Triggers cause the automation to start, and responses tell it what to do. Triggers are fairly easy to write, responses can be simple or complex. However, none of these can be saved to disk as a separate entity, saved to a template, or reused. Many can not be duplicated within the program.

 

This means that the process of creating a Server database can not build on a pre-existing library of tested automations. Instead, each needs to be created from scratch.

Archiving isn’t really archiving.

When a file is archived, it is copied to the archive device and removed from the server. However, Server assumes that all archives are stored on a single volume always attached to the network. It doesn’t know anything about removable media. It doesn’t track which tape, or disc, a file is stored on. It doesn’t know to ask if the proper disc is attached.

 

If it can’t find an archived file, it just returns an error.

 

Worse, when a file is restored from the archive, it is erased from the archive. This is just plain wrong. Archived files should not be removed, only copied.

Movie annotations can not be exported.

Say a producer is watching a movie, jotting down timecode, and indicating what she would like at that point in time. There is no way to collect those annotations into an email – or any other document – and send them to someone else. The only way to view them is inside Final Cut Server, by looking at the same clip and clicking the Annotation tab.

 

You can not do a rough-cut of a series of clips and have that rough-cut show up in a Final Cut project.

 

At this point, you can’t have producers pre-cutting materials. Reviewing, yes. Suggesting edits, either in text or by setting edit points, no.

To really harness the automated workflow and integration of Server, you need to write automations.

This is analogous to FileMaker. FileMaker is a really powerful database, but out of the box it doesn’t do much until you start designing tables, fields, reports, and scripts to control everything. Server is similar, you need to customize it to really use it’s power.

The power of Final Cut Server rests with the ability of the Admin.

If you have a system administrator who can devote the time to understanding and administering Final Cut Server, who has a solid background in databases, you will have a much more successful implementation than if the Admin is someone who is a strong editor, but new to networks and databases.

CONCLUSION

When Apple announced Final Cut Server in 2007, they showed it in use at Channel 2 in Los Angeles. Currently, I’m aware of two installations at large organizations in Boston and New York. There are, I’m sure, many others.

For companies that have the resources to hire an installation consultant or have a strong IT department, plus many users that need to review the same media, Final Cut Server can significantly help manage your video assets.

However, for smaller shops, especially given the lack of support for integrating other Final Cut Studio projects and the inability to do much with clip annotations, you might want to consider waiting for Final Cut Server to mature a bit more.

 

Your thoughts are welcome



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