Many editors don’t understand why Apple have abandoned the track-based editing metaphor.
Tracks have been in Mac applications since Macromind VideoWorks in 1985:
Image source: Jamie Fenton
VideoWorks (which evolved into Macromedia Director in the 90s) was an animation application that imported graphic images (into a ‘cast’ window), these images are then placed on a stage in layers. The ‘Score’ showed these numbered layers listed vertically, with animation frames shown horizontally. In the example above, there is nothing shown in layer 3 until frame 8. The current frame is 13, with the graphic in layer 2 selected.
When Avid and Adobe Premiere came along, they had timelines that represented video clips overlaying each other in layers, and this metaphor survives to this day. Here’s an example of how tracks are used in editing today:
The modern rule is that the lowest numbered track is in the background, and video clips in higher numbered layers obscure the layers below. In the example if all the clips were full screen, the final edit would start with the wide shot, followed by Actor A, then B, A, the wide, B, A and back to the wide.
Tracks can implement every editing method
The flexibility of tracks means that editors can get the same result with a different layout of clips on the timeline. In the following case, instead of using track 1 for the wide, 2 for Actor A and 3 for Actor B, track 1 if used for third takes, 2 for second takes and 3 for first takes:
Very few editors would use layers in this way, but track-based editing has been flexible enough to allow for hundreds of different methodologies to be used over the last 25 years. The ability to make tracks and individual clips visible and invisible helps editors use their timelines as places to keep alternate ideas and options for later in the editing process.
In this case the timeline shows an interview that includes B-roll footage that illustrates the points being made in answers to questions. Some of the clips have been disabled, but left on the timeline in case they might be used in future edits. B-roll 2 and 2b are disabled, but remain as possible replacements for B-roll 2a. Answer 14 is similar to answer 12, but is disabled for now.
Judging by their actions, Apple believes that the downside of removing track-based editing from Final Cut Pro X is worth the upside of the benefits of the new way of doing things.
So what feature of Final Cut’s new timeline forced Apple to get rid of tracks?
The Final Cut Pro X ‘magnetic timeline’ is a relationships-based timeline
One of the many jobs editors have in scenes is to associate one clip with another. In the example above, B-roll clips 6 and 7 are associated with the interviewee’s answer to to question 2. After a few seconds showing the interviewee, B-roll clip 6 appears, followed by clip 7. In the earlier example, while Actor A talks, the editor cuts to Actor B’s reaction. Actor B then speaks, after a few seconds we see Actor A’s reaction.
The innovation Final Cut Pro X introduced was a way for an editor to quickly link clips – when moments need to happen at the same time, and when a series of clips need to be grouped together.
Clips are quickly synced with each other using connections. In the case of interview answer 12 above, what if a moment 3 seconds into B-roll 12 needs to line up with a specific moment in the answer? In Final Cut Pro X you can create this connection (using Q to connect the clip to the primary storyline and command-option clicking the connected clip to move the connection location).
As well as defining when one clip syncs with another, you can define a series of clips as a storyline and define when the storyline syncs with a clip. In the example above, answer 11 can be associated with two B-roll clips: 11 & 12. Clip 11 works to set up clip 12. This makes sure that B-roll clip 11 & 12 always move together, and stay in sync with the interview clip.
The primary benefit of the new Final Cut Pro X timeline is that it makes the relationships between clips clear. Editors can return to timelines quickly recognising clip relationships, and timelines can be passed on to collaborators with these points encoded clearly.
Editors have always decided how clips should relate to each other.
Synchronisation points can be defined in other editing software using matching markers and by moving sets of clips at the same time. Problems arise when connected clips clash with clips connected to clips at the destination.
If answer 11 needed to be moved after answer 5…
…then the B-roll clip 11 would clash with B-roll clip 2a. It would either replace it (so that Interview Answer 5 would no longer have B-Roll 2a illustrating a specific point) or…
…the move would introduce a gap between answer 5 and the newly inserted answer 11.
Here’s how the same edit works in Final Cut Pro X. Firstly, the timeline is simplified by combining the hidden optional clips inside auditions. An audition holds B-roll 2, 2a and 2b, and is set to show 2a. An audition also holds interview answer 12 and 14, and is set to show answer 12. The B-roll clips associated with each interview answer are combined in their own storylines. Answer 5 is linked to a storyline made up of B-roll 1 and the audition that is displaying B-roll 2a. Interview 2 is linked to a storyline that is made of B-roll 6 and 7:
…the answers continue without a gap, and the editor needs to choose what B-roll to show between answer 5 and 11.
The important thing here is primary storyline is instantly changed, so the editor can go on to choose what to show, but the relationships between the clips remain. If the B-roll clips were locked to specific tracks, there would be no way of maintaining the relationships between the clips.
It seems to me an application that can encode the relationships between clips is more powerful than apps that leave the relationships to be recognised by whichever editor is looking at a timeline. In Final Cut Pro X, a modern technological implementation doesn’t get in the way of the craft of working with clip relationships.
Apple believes that maintaining the relationships between clips is more important than keeping clips on specific tracks.
In the coming months and years, the market will determine whether the majority of editors agree with Apple.