Final Cut Express HD v3.5

by Chris Howard Feb 05, 2007

I’ve been absorbed in an excellent application for the last few days, which, if you can afford it, you should get. I refer of course to Final Cut Express HD (FCE).

FCE is the junior version of Final Cut Pro, which has been used in the production of Academy Award-winning films. Despite being the little brother, FCE is packed full of power and features.

iMovie is a great application—or so I read—but my experience with it has almost always been unsatisfying. It feels a bit one-legged. I always seem to want to do a bit more than it offers. That said, many, many people who use it are as happy as a pig in mud.

When I bought my first Mac, Apple was offering Final Cut Express cheap, so I figured I’d never get a better chance. I edited my sister’s wedding video, learning the basics, and then leaving it to gather dust on the shelf for the next three years.

I’d always sworn I’d get around to using it—or iMovie—to put all my home movies (currently on miniDV tapes) onto DVD, but it’s such a time consuming venture, and I’m a bit pedantic, so I never found the time.

At the end of 2006, my eldest finished primary school and the principal made a Powerpoint presentation full of photos of all the kids and set to music. It was really quite moving, but I wanted a DVD version I could watch anytime. So I went back to movie making.

Using the excellent File Juicer, I extracted all the images in their original resolution from the Powerpoint.

My first attempt at recreating the presentation was with iMovie, but I found it slow and unable to do what I wanted. I then discovered that Apple generously allows users of any version of FCE to upgrade to version 3.5 for just AUD$139 (US$99). For any existing owners of FCE, that is a good value, especially for version 1 owners like myself.

As a result of my previous experience with FCE, I did find it a little easier to return; however, three years away from it is a long time, and I still had forgotten most of what I’d learned. Although I remember struggling with the learning curve the first time ‘round, this time I did grasp it more quickly, which I think is also because of some of the new features and enhancements.

First timers may be initially daunted by the FCE interface, but on closer inspection, it is not that dissimilar to iMovie’s, as Apple explains on its website.

Also, FCE comes with an extensive tutorial on DVD, which is well worth watching for anyone new to FCE.

As you’d expect, FCE’s feature set is vast. Therefore I will only focus on a few features that stood out during my project.

Bonus applications
I could have made my little video with FCE 1 and produced a decent result. However, FCE now comes with LiveType and Soundtrack. These two made the upgrade price for me an absolute steal.

The LiveType web page says:
Using LiveType 2—the new, Universal version of Apple’s easy-to-use titling application—you can quickly and easily create dynamic, animated titles for your video projects using revolutionary LiveFont animated font technology. And thanks to tight integration, you can edit and automatically update LiveType projects in Final Cut Express HD.

With LiveType you can create animated titles like you see on TV or at the movies. Watching your text dancing to music is pretty impressive to say the least! The LiveType animated fonts have to be seen to be believed. You could make a career out of being a LiveType expert.

The Soundtrack web page says:
Soundtrack 1.5—the new, Universal version of Soundtrack—brings the art of music composition and audio production to everyone. No need to license a song or hire a composer. Soundtrack lets you easily create custom, royalty-free music to accompany your video projects. Whether you’re a seasoned composer or have never written a note before, Soundtrack lets you lay down tracks and mix a “complete” score in no time. You can also record voice-overs and perform simple dialogue edits to produce a professional-quality final mix. And thanks to its polished new interface, Soundtrack offers more options and sophistication than ever.

Soundtrack includes 4,000 loops. These also work in GarageBand, which only comes with 1,000. There is some duplication, but I at least tripled my loop collection, which for me was another factor in buying FCE. However, where GarageBand is aimed at musicians, Soundtrack is aimed at video editors, so it has special features to make scoring your soundtrack easier. For my project though, I didn’t need to use Soundtrack.

This is what really sets FCE above iMovie. iMovie imports movie clips and works directly on them, resulting in much slower workflow. FCE, however, merely references the clips in their original location on disk, which makes for greatly increased speed and more editing flexibility.

This type of editing, with its “no clips were harmed in the making of this movie” process, is called non-destructive editing. Basically, what is going on in the background is a script that is being developed which records what bits of clips to use and how.

Consequently, file sizes are much, much smaller. The attempt I made in iMovie—which didn’t include the music—produced a file size of 350MB. In FCE, with the music and other resources, and a plethora of edits, the file size was 824KB. That is, 0.824MB.

Therefore, in iMovie, I was working on a very large file, whereas in FCE I was working with a very small file, hence the much faster workflow.

However, FCE still requires disk space for its working files and these can take up much space, but can also be deleted after your project is finished.

Whereas iMovie gives you one video track and two audio tracks, FCE lets you have up to 99 video and 99 audio tracks. This means you can composite amazing layers of video effects. For instance, you could have dozens of photos, text, and movies flying around the screen if you felt so inclined.

Keyframing allows you to mark points on your video where you want certain events to occur. This is greatly enhanced since my version 1 of FCE and really makes a huge difference. It is a very powerful tool.

For instance, to spin an image or clip, mark the start and set the beginning angle, then at the end point of the spin, set the ending angle. Want to zoom at the same time? No problem: set the beginning and ending zoom sizes at the start and end points of the spin.

This is just one use for keyframes that is only the tip of the iceberg. Having clips overlaid and flying around the screen is done with keyframes.

Fine Tuning
FCE allows you to work on video right down to one frame at a time. With audio you can go right down to one-one-hundredth of a frame. This allows you to perfectly fine tune and synchronize your audio and video.

I was a little disappointed with the impact that FCE had on my system. It didn’t feel any faster than version 1 did on my old PowerBook. Although newer applications are always bigger and slower, we are also talking about the difference between a 1GHz CPU and a dual core 2GHz CPU with other much faster components too.

An application like FCE should come with printed manuals. Even though there is an 1100-page manual on the disk, using it is cumbersome.

FCE often doesn’t require clips, transitions, or effects to be rendered. LiveType, on the other hand, always needs rendering every time you make a change.

FCE is poorly integrated with iTunes. To add a music track from iTunes requires navigating to the song’s folder and dragging and dropping to FCE. Although, on the plus side, you can drag and drop whole folders of media into FCE.

Also, FCE would greatly benefit from having a media browser like other consumer apps do.

I did encounter a few other minor issues, although I think most were because I haven’t learned FCE properly yet.

My original desire was to produce a video made up of still images with pans, zooms and fancy titles, along with a music backing track. FCE, along with LiveType, left that goal in its dust! The results were a hundred times better than I’d hoped, and, because of the keyframing feature in particular, much simpler than I’d expected. I actually found FCE easier to use than iMovie.

Final Cut Express HD 3.5 is a very powerful suite of applications, and has become easier to use since earlier versions.

As you’d expect, FCE is not cheap, but well worth it if you can find the money. Currently Apple is offering discounts of up to US$200 on FCE (depending on whether you buy retail, education, or corporate) with any new Mac.

If you are into movies, you are probably already using FCE (or if you’re really serious, Final Cut Pro). However, if you aren’t, you should be, because it will make you more productive and make your movies more professional-looking and stunning. 9/10


  • An application like FCE should come with printed manuals.

    Heh.  My FCP set came with printed manuals.  Boy did it come with printed manuals.  That huge box you see on the shelf in the Apple store is almost nothing but books.  And I have yet to crack a single one of them.  I use the digital versions because of the ease of search (although Apple leaves a lot to be desired in this dept).

    I wanted to try FCE because it’s so much less expensive than FCP.  It supports HD and does most of the basic functionality of FCP.  The problem is that it doesn’t support 24p, which is a peculiar feature to leave out, IMO.  Plus, everyone I know uses FCP, and I’d have to be compatible with them.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Feb 05, 2007 Posts: 2220
  • Plus, everyone I know uses FCP, and I’d have to be compatible with them.

    Therein lies the truth: “Once you go Mac, you DON’T go back!”.

    If Apple can “hook & catch” the fickle Bbx, anything is possible.

    Robomac had this to say on Feb 05, 2007 Posts: 846
  • Thanks for the review Chris. I’ve been struggling with iMovie because it seems to “almost” do everything I need, but nothing quite right. I will be getting FCE this year, hopefully soon.

    motherduce had this to say on Feb 08, 2007 Posts: 17
  • Beeb, one thing I haven’t worked out is audio in LiveType. Can LT play audio? Does it strip audio out? (which it seemed to do to a movie of mine)

    Besides that, I’m still loving FCE 3.5 altho am using the more familiar GarageBand instead of Soundtrack.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Feb 09, 2007 Posts: 1209
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