The Power of Hiding Complexity

During the last week I caught up with the (in my totally biased opinion) excellent take on FCP X and the Future of Editing by David Leitner in Filmmaker Magazine. He outlines the process of democratization that has happened since Final Cut Pro 1, and how that affects what is needed from a modern NLE. That article set me thinking about how hard it is to hide complexity in a simple interface and how that affects the learnability of the software.

The whole article is excellent but what really caught my eye was this excerpt:

What cracked the door to editing for “the rest of us” was the introduction of software-based Final Cut Pro 1.0 at NAB in 1999, coincident with the arrival of FireWire-enabled DV camcorders. All dismissed as amateur, naturally.

We’ve seen how that turned out. Digital democratization spread inexorably. It’s not hard to draw straight lines from FCP + DV to HDV and DVCPRO HD, to the rise of small camcorders, Internet streaming, cheap SD cards to record on, RED usurping film and cheap HDSLRs usurping RED. (With a regrettable drop in pay rates along the way.)

As a consequence, there are exponentially more people, professional and nonprofessional alike, of all ages, in all countries, now creating, editing and distributing digital movies. Everyone with a point-and-shoot or smartphone in their pocket is a potential HD source. (Today’s equivalent of a Kodak Brownie: “You push the button, we do the rest.” Insert irony here.)

Make it easy and it becomes more accessible to more people. In a conversation recently with someone I consider very smart, they mentioned they’d put together a full Final Cut Pro system, around the time of version 5, intending to do some editing work. He claims he never used it because it was too daunting. The worry was that if a setting was wrong at the start, he might not be able to output at the finish. Point being, it was so daunting that a very smart person was disheartened enough by the apparent complexity to avoid it completely. He’s also attempted to use iMovie and finds it too limiting (he’s not an editor by any means).

My first introduction to NLE was via Media 100: the very essence of a simple interface. I could teach everything about Media 100 – from turning on the Mac to outputting a project – in three days. Final Cut Pro 101 alone is three days (201 takes a full working week)! (Thanks to Robin Kurz for the correction.) But it was very easy to grow out of Media 100. Media 100’s metaphor was simplicity itself: an A/B video track with transition in between, with a superimpose/title track above. The flow of the video was clear from the arrows between the tracks. It was a simple interface and it appealed to me at the time for that reason: it was way more powerful than my cuts only suite that it obsoleted and the quality was high enough for finished work. It should be noted that I was totally self taught as an editor, and came into the industry via my own business. I was almost the exact customer that John Molinari had in mind for Media 100. The metaphor resonated.

Media 100 was easy to outgrow. It lacked the depth that we all reach for sooner or later. In my early days, After Effects actually provided the effects depth Media 100 lacked. (And of course, Boris built the entire BorisFX business on the assumption Media 100 users – and others subsequently – wanted more compositing power in their simple NLE interface.)

Fortunately about the time I was finding Media 100 limiting, along comes Final Cut Pro 1. But the metaphor was different. And different from what was originally conceived at Macromedia as a competitor to Premiere 5 (effectively). That tool was shown at NAB 1998 in a small booth off the show floor and I caught a demo of 0.9 alpha of this new Final Cut (and I have the T shirt to prove it!) That was very similar to the Premiere of the day which had A and B video tracks, with multiple superimposition tracks above. And indeed 0.9 of Final Cut (at Macromedia) had eight “After Effects style compositing tracks”.

But by the time Apple had reworked Final Cut to be the democratized editing tool for professionals (see my earlier post on how few units Apple expected to sell) Final Cut Pro was more Media Composer than Media 100. The metaphor made sense to those who had been editing with film or video tape in traditional edit bays. It assumed a certain level of knowledge about settings, timecode, etc, which was frequently a barrier to entry.

My partner Greg who has no video production background at all, understood Media 100, possibly because he did a lot of the publishing work on the Media 100 Editor’s Companion. But interestingly, he never really understood Final Cut Pro 1-7, despite doing a lot of the publishing work on the DV Companion and subsequent training products. In discussing this with him, it’s clear that the underlying metaphor for Media 100 made sense to someone without a background in video post production, whereas Final Cut Pro 1-7 did really require a background in post production to be comfortable.

In other words, Media 100 suited the producer, shooter, or “unschooled” editor; Final Cut Pro, despite its attainable price, really required the editor to be “schooled” in the traditional methodology. That metaphor wasn’t helpful to the hundreds of thousands of people editing, who had never done tape-to-tape editing (or the even fewer who had edited film on a Moviola). This is what lead to the impass I mentioned above, where Final Cut Pro was so daunting no start ever happened.

Of course, many more people purchased, and learnt to some degree, Final Cut Pro 1-7. The growth went way beyond Apple’s expected “25,000 seats in two years” and along the way trainers – such as myself – did good business helping people access the undoubted power of Final Cut Pro 1-7.

Faced with this change in landscape since the original design of Final Cut (Pro), when Apple came to rethink and redesign Final Cut Pro, it seems logical that they should not continue the metaphor that required a heap of industry background and specialized knowledge, or start over with an interface that allowed the newly democratized professional to quickly become efficient.

Now to be fair Adobe went to a lot of trouble in the CS 6 release of Premiere Pro to make the interface less cluttered by a lot of tools (power) even if they were infrequently used. Customizability in Media Composer similarly helps simplify the interface. However, in both cases the metaphors are still those of a 20-year-earlier industry.

My observation is that people – like Greg  who understood Media 100 – find no problem with Final Cut Pro X – it feels intuitive *unless* you have a bunch of specialized post production experience with traditional tools. I hear the same from friends who continue to train both versions of Final Cut Pro. Universally they say that it was daunting for a newbie to get up to speed with classic Final Cut Pro, but very easy to bring those same people up to speed with Final Cut Pro X.

What I find somewhat confusing, is that some of my smart, and experienced, friends, took much longer to adapt to Final Cut Pro X than I would have expected (or experienced myself).

Of all the efforts to simplify the editing interface, I think Final Cut Pro X does it best. At first look it’s superficial similarity to iMovie let people think it lacked power. But just one click or keystroke away, there’s a power feature. For example: if you were happy to use Keyword Collections as superficially similar to Bins in earlier versions of Final Cut Pro, you can by simply applying the keyword to a range. But if you want to create complex filters to dynamically pinpoint the exact clips you’re looking for, then you have that as well. (And if you want to ignore keywords altogether and just use the Favorite and Reject features that it shares with iMovie, that’s OK too.)

Final Cut Pro X is deceptively simple. You can work with the clips and do hard audio cuts with your video; or you can open out the audio track and do easy overlaps and cross fades. Or dig deeper and open up all the audio components and work at that level. (We could still use a role-based mixer, please!).

If you’re happy with the single viewer approach in Final Cut Pro X, then the Event Viewer never gets in your way. If you want it, it’s there in a flash. Preset speed changes are very easy, but just underneath you can adjust speed dynamically.

I could go on, but there are lots of examples. Clearly there has been thought put into how to keep the power, but retain as much simplicity as possible.

Another way they achieve apparent simplicity is by having what I call “sensible defaults”. Final Cut Pro X does by default what I (mostly) want it to do. Mostly when I trim clips in a timeline I want the timeline to close up. It annoyed me that the Roll tool was the default choice when I mostly wanted Ripple.

I think it is the combination of “intuitive” interface (as long as you don’t have a lot of knowledge already) and sensible defaults that makes Final Cut Pro X so fast, but I’m still trying to quantify why everyone who has become familiar with Final Cut Pro X says it is so much faster. (They all say it’s faster once they get used to the changed paradigms.)

So, Final Cut Pro X seems to be intuitive, but only to those who have not had a traditional media production background. As David Leitner says in the quote above:

As a consequence, there are exponentially more people, professional and nonprofessional alike, of all ages, in all countries, now creating, editing and distributing digital movies.

So the people without the knowledge of the historic paradigms make up the majority of the marketplace. Those people have no problem with Final Cut Pro X, but those familiar with the older paradigms have trouble unlearning?

Maybe unlearning has become as valuable a skill as learning. I drink wine to help with the unlearning, but perhaps Alving Toffler put it better:

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.


35 replies on “The Power of Hiding Complexity”

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  1. Nice write up, Philip! Thanks! Very well observed and well put.

    Just one small correction: FCP 101 isn’t a week (five days) but rather three days. FCP *200* is five days. 😉
    (Of course, that’s assuming you were referring to the Apple training.)

    1. I’ll correct the article.

      1. Back when you were teaching Final Cut Pro 1 (before there was certified training) it could take a week to do basic training. The first day included a lot of time talking about sequence settings, before there were Easy Setups.

  2. Just another small correction, it’s Alvin Toffler.

    1. I can’t copy and paste straight? Darn. Thanks.

  3. My take on why fcpx feels faster is due to the pro apps team really thinking about each action a user makes and to reduce the number of thought actions. It’s about the economy of thought.

    The event manager has made it a breeze to locate footage even in massive clip libraries. Compare the mental Olympiad we’ve all experienced in the past keeping on top of footage in bins and clip descriptions. This alone leaves more brain capacity for creative work.

    You can see this approach throughout the application by presenting the minimum possible options to the editor. I see this as a strength and hope fcpx maintains this zen like feel and as Adobe has shown it’s all too easy to bloat your software. Apple do seem to be adding functionality while maintaining the UX as everything is an extension to the very solid foundation they created, e.g. we could all see how multicam would work even before they put it in.

    Not to mention they built the app on top of great technology that just makes it fly with as little user intervention as possible. Apple’s Open CL seems to be faster that Adobe’s CUDA in many of the important benchmarks and given Open CL’s relative immaturity to CUDA is impressive.

    I’m not sure you need to unlearn what went before just go with the new flow.

  4. Great insight on the original article. FCP 1-7 did have a much tougher learning curve than FCP X has. Setting scratch disks and caches while trying to navigate 100s of codec options was daunting for a new user. The ease of FCP X has unfortunately been looked at “IMovie Pro”, give me a nickel for every time I hear that statement.

    What I find interesting is that FCPX actually hides the “Pro” features, 5.1 mixing, subframe audio, hot key based color grading with Power windows below the surface. It is like those mansions with all the trap doors and books and candlesticks you have to pull to reveal its secrets. This is great for beginners to learn the basics without being overwhelmed but lets the more advanced users really harness the power of the software.

    Also I find that as much as Apple tries to simplify the UI and the workflow paradigms, the beginning editor gets lazy and doesn’t bother to actually understand media management and proper output and archival.

    1. Kamil, picking up on your last point – just like the modern driver doesn’t bother to actually understand how engines work and proper engine maintenance! My point being that we should not have to worry about such things. The software should transparently allow us to edit.

      1. While the automobile has made major advancements we still need to go to mechanic to have the car looked at when it starts to act up. This can start to get expensive, just like hiring someone to fix a project that has been edited in the wrong codec, resolution, and the media is scattered. Also as we add major safety features like blind side detection and break assist to cars we can become lazy drivers who rely on the technology instead of understanding how to drive safely and maintain our own cars.
        I know this is happening on many areas, as in our sense of direction, navigation, time, basic math, spelling are being replaced by technology. But while I agree that editing tools will become more transparent and assist the beginner, the advancing technology continues to be a challenge.
        The “snow flake” workflow factor for each project requires problem solving skills and not magic buttons to fix the issue. Each week there seems to be a new camera out that shoots in a new codec with new aspect and resolution. Just because FCPX allows editing in 5K doesn’t mean everyone should just hit that button because it is there. We should still understand the decisions we are making with the software no matter how quick and easy it speeds up our creative projects.

        1. I generally agree – it’s definitely better to have an understanding of the fundamentals, be it a car or an NLE, but the reality is that almost no driver these days understands the fundamentals of the car, I doubt that most of the users 2 million FCP 7 seats had any grasp of the fundamentals of video technology.

          I know, I set up or serviced their systems. 🙂 Mechanics make good money!

          1. I agree that most of the FCP users aren’t tech savy but are simply happy in stumbling to the finish line of their projects. Personally I love making a living as tech teacher/mechanic. Becoming a digital mechanic is becoming fluent in codecs, systems, bitrate, color space ect…and diginal editing these days is a 3 part mixture of application comfort, tech knowledge and editng esthetics and theory on telling a good story. So I’m all for the democratization of digital filmmaking but there will be a techs and tastemakers to go to.

            Apple has made FCP into a just another feature in their walled garden. An attraction to play with while we buy up their hardware and I’m fine with that. They could probably sell FCP X for $99 and still make money on it while Avid loses millions each quarter. Just because we all own a pen and paper doesn’t make us successful writers but we all still get something to say.

          2. The sad reality is that almost none of the top editors in “Hollywood” are adept at the technical side. They have an Assistant Editor who handles all technical issues, or are in a studio with a full technical infrastructure around them.

            I support a couple of great editors who are technologically challenged. Have done even more over recent years.

      2. That is a sad reality and I wonder how longer that model will continue. With the increase in VFX, D.I and color grading, these new artists are not only creative but also technical in their digital craft. I think as film and tape workflows continue to decrease these non technical editors will become more creative consultants and supervisors instead of the ones actually making the edits. As Robert Rodriguez says, “If you’re creative and technical, you’re unstoppable.”

        1. VFX DI and color grading affect a very small percentage of all professional editors, both traditional and democratized. Most FCP X users finish in FCP X, as did FCP 7 (with a tiny, tiny percentage ever using Color).

  5. I really like the simple logical interface of FCPX but even more impressive for me is that when you do delve a bit deeper into this application then the more “expert” parts are logically designed and simple to use.

    The Precision Editor, for example, really is a wonderful design. It is so logical in its functioning and simple to use. I think that of all the “precision editing” type tools that I’ve known in NLEs this one is the best.

  6. Looks like FCPX is finally getting the respect it deserves.

  7. This was the most spot-on reflection (perhaps I mean insight) I have yet read on the state of video editing and FCPX. My own experience mirrored Greg’s: I found Media 100 so easy to use that I just kept using it. I think I just didn’t want to invest the time to learn FCP 1-7 — that is, learn it to be really productive.
    FCPX was a game changer for me, exactly as Philip described it: on one level simple, with really powerful features that are easily accessible, but not in your way. Brilliant.
    Thanks for the article, Philip.
    P.S. I haven’t chatted with you and Greg in many a year, but if you’re ever up in B-town, lunch is on me.

    1. We should get up that way some time Peter, would be great to catch up.

  8. I’m going to weigh in here as a long-time opponent of FCPX.

    I think what they’ve done with FCPX is EXACTLY what this industry needs. An intuitive interface that allows you to learn quickly, and dig deeper as you become more experienced. Thinking about editing differently — as simply rearranging digital files, because that’s what it is, after all — has been a long time coming. The original Sonic Foundry Vegas accomplished this gracefully from the start, but unfortunately never gained any clout in industry… not sure why. Similarly, will FCPX ever be a valid industry editing platform?

    Sorting clips according to keywords, and having temporal metadata is also something I’ve always longed for. Especially where a good ENG shooter will often get the CU and the WS and some cutaways in the same shot! I like these things about FCPX. They’re awesome!

    I jumped on FCPX the minute it came out, excited that it would solve a lot of the Avid/FCP7 UI clunkiness and unintuitive problems, and it does. But I am one of those that ‘returned’ it after a few days due to lack of Multicam, Broadcast Monitoring, and Mixer.

    I have not gone back to try FCPX again. I probably should at some point, but here’s what’s stopping me:

    As a ‘professional’ editor, I think about editing from start-to-finish. I can learn a new UI, I can learn to think about editing differently. I want to learn quickly, and I want it to be intuitive.

    But I also want to know how I’m going to manage my media, because I’m going to archive it eventually. I want to know if I’m going to need to transcode something externally, or how I’m going to round-trip something through After Effects. Or if I lose a clip or need to move it to another drive, I want to know how to relink it. I still want to be able to get my assigned tracks to sound mix, because I don’t want to do an audio mix in FCPX, I want to do it in Pro Tools, where there are already dozens of plug-ins and excellent tools for mixing.

    So that’s where FCPX still comes up short for me. I can ‘unlearn’ and ‘relearn’ editing. It’s all the stuff *around* the editing, that we know is very very important, that seems like it won’t be easy to learn, isn’t possible in FCPX (yet?), or is poorly designed.

    Are these real concerns, or am I just being a troll at this point?

    feel free to edit this to be much shorter, Philip. This came out much longer than I expected.

    1. FCP X now has Multicam, Broadcast monitoring (for those who actually need it), improved audio, but no audio mixer yet. You can round trip to After Effects as elegantly as you can from Media Composer (Of course PPro has it’s own advantage there)

      Tracks are assigned to sound mixing via XtoPro based on the roles in FCP X (which are actually vastly superior to tracks in this context) on the way to ProTools.

      So, I suspect you’re a little under-researched on the subject.


      1. Yeah, I know about the broadcast monitoring and multicam being resolved now. Good to know there’s a workaround at least for the audio. I took the time to read Ken Stone’s media management guide, and Larry Jordan’s ‘reconnect’ guide, it seems like a lot has been improved. I’ll probably give it another try soon.

        1. The only thing to ‘fear’ Tim is fear itself. I’m 52 and I’ve spent a lot of time ‘learning’ and ‘unlearning’ these things; see it as a game if you will, and, its how well you play the game that gets you through it. It works for me… 🙂

          1. I will be 50 in a few months but adapting to FCPX was no problem for me. Once you get the hang of it Tim then the rest is easy.

            I feel that FCPX halves the time spent editing compared with other Pro editors. However I don’t know if this is actually true or is simply just the feel of progress you get while using it, it is such a pleasure to use that the time flies by twice as fast perhaps ☺

  9. updates available for all 3!

    1. 10.0.7 has made editing much more fluid on my Mac Pro 5870. There has been a slight pause as the GUI catches up with the mouse movements now its smooth as butter.

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