How Final Cut Pro Works

By: Dave Roos
"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," starring Gwyneth Paltrow, was edited using Final Cut Pro.
"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," starring Gwyneth Paltrow, was edited using Final Cut Pro.
© Alessendra Benedetti/WireImage/Getty Images

Every Hollywood movie, from the biggest blockbuster to the smallest indie film, begins on a humble computer screen. Editing is the process of cutting down hundreds of hours of video footage into a cohesive, entertaining final product. This process used to be done by hand, physically cutting and pasting film together with editing tape. Now it's done with nonlinear editing software like Final Cut Pro.

Nonlinear editing means that a filmmaker can jump around his project, adding and cutting material as easily as cutting and pasting text in a word processor. There's no need to work chronologically from beginning to end. Everything is digital, which means it can be dragged, dropped, trimmed and altered wherever, whenever.


In recent years, as computing power has steadily improved, there has been an increased emphasis on real-time editing. In the past, adding effects, transitions and graphics took a lot of computer processing time, even when using powerful video editing systems like AVID editing machines. It was also time-consuming and expensive to work with large files like high-definition video.

Now the latest versions of Final Cut Pro and AVID Media Composer can handle high-definition video and complicated effects without bogging down the editing process. Software engineers have figured out how to compress file sizes without sacrificing image quality and to preview effects without long rendering times.

Avid has long been considered the industry standard for video editing software, but Final Cut Pro is catching up. More and more professional editors have figured out that Final Cut can do everything AVID can do faster and for less money. Roderick Jaynes, who won the Oscar for Best Editing for "No Country for Old Men" used Final Cut Pro as did the editors of effects-heavy productions like "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and even "The Simpsons Movie."

The nice thing about Final Cut Pro is that it's powerful enough to satisfy the most demanding professionals but easy enough to be enjoyed by high-end home users.

How do you use Final Cut Pro? What are some features of Final Cut Pro? How does it stack up against Avid? Read on to find out.


Using Final Cut Pro

The Oscar-winning film "No Country for Old Men" was edited using Final Cut Pro.
The Oscar-winning film "No Country for Old Men" was edited using Final Cut Pro.
© Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

The Final Cut Pro interface closely resembles AVID Media Composer. There are three windows along the top of the screen. On the top left is the Browser, where you can import and organize all of the files (video, audio, still images, previously edited sequences) that will be used in the project.

You can import video clips into the browser using several different methods. The first is to capture clips from tape. Connect a tape deck or a camcorder to your computer with Firewire cable and choose File -- Log and Capture. In the Log and Capture window, you can control playback of your deck or camcorder. Set in and out points with the I and O keys and press Capture Now to digitize the desired clip and save it in the Browser. If you want to digitize many clips at once, you can log the in and out points of each clip and then batch capture them at the end.


Some newer digital camcorders are tapeless, meaning they record to a built-in hard drive or memory card instead of a tape cassette. In Final Cut Pro, tapeless clips aren't captured, they're ingested. All you do is connect your tapeless camcorder to your computer and go to File -- Log and Transfer. All of the clips on your camera will appear as a list of thumbnails. Choose the clips you want to import and drag them into the digitizing queue. You can also set in and out points on each clip before importing them to save room on your hard drive.

Another way to import clips into the Browser is by simply selecting files that are already on your hard drive. You can find them by going to File - Import - File and then choosing the clip from the Finder window.

In the top middle of the Final Cut Pro interface is the Viewer window. When you double-click on a clip in the browser, it appears in the Viewer. Here you can trim it using in and out points. The viewer comes with a jog wheel, a shuttle and a scroll bar for locating individual frames. Once you've trimmed your clip down to size, it's time to add it to the Timeline.

The Timeline is where all of the elements of a sequence are assembled. You can add a clip to the Timeline by dragging it straight from the Browser or the Viewer. Video clips are assembled chronologically from left to right with separate tracks for audio and video.

To the right of the Timeline are a set of editing tools for trimming clips once they're in the Timeline. Tools like Ripple, Roll, Slip and Slide allow you to easily shorten and lengthen clips, slide edit points, overwrite and replace video.

The Canvas window is where you can preview what your entire edited sequence looks like. The playhead in the Canvas is synched to the playhead on the Timeline. The Canvas can also be used as a fast way to add clips to the Timeline. By dragging a clip from the Viewer and holding it over the Canvas, you access the Edit Overlay window, where you can choose from common edits like insert, overwrite and standard transitions. Those clips and transitions will be added to the Timeline wherever the playhead is located.

Once your sequence is edited, you can export and encode to dozens of different file types for making a DVD, publishing to the Web or creating content for mobile devices like iPods and cell phones. The best way to encode for different devices is by sending the file to Compressor, the encoding software included in Final Cut Studio.

Now let's look at some of the coolest and newest features of Final Cut Pro.


Features of Final Cut Pro

Film and sound editor Walter Murch discusses using Final Cut Pro to edit "Cold Mountain."
Film and sound editor Walter Murch discusses using Final Cut Pro to edit "Cold Mountain."
© Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

The most powerful feature of Final Cut Pro is that it comes as part of the Final Cut Studio 2 software suite. This means that advanced video editing tools that were previously sold as expensive standalone units are now included as one highly compatible package.

Final Cut Studio 2 includes the following software titles, all of which are accessible from within Final Cut Pro:


  • Motion 3 - A tool for creating stunning 3D and animated motion graphics.
  • Soundtrack Pro 2 - An audio editing tool for scoring and professionally mixing the audio for your project. It's like Pro Tools for Final Cut Pro.
  • Color - Includes basic and advanced tools for color correction.
  • Compressor 3 - Easily encode projects for playback online or for playback on DVDs, high-definition TVs and mobile devices.
  • DVD Studio Pro 4 - Author professional quality DVDs with hundreds of built-in templates or create your own design from scratch.

One of the most recent additions to Final Cut Pro is the Open Timeline. In the past, you could only place clips in the Timeline if they were shot at the same frame rate (24 fps or 30 fps), aspect ratio (standard or widescreen) and definition (standard definition or high definition). If you wanted to use clips from different media sources, you'd have to transcode each one of them to a standard format before you could edit them in real time.

With the Open Timeline, you can insert an HD clip right between two SD clips, and you'll never notice a difference when editing and previewing the sequence. Make edits across all formats and file types without having to render along the way. All of the heavy lifting comes when it's time to export the sequence. Then you have to choose a single format to publish the movie and the whole project will be rendered accordingly.

Another cool new feature is the MultiCam editor, a tool designed specifically for projects where multiple cameras were used to shoot the same scene. With MultiCam editing, you can choose up to 12 different shots of the same action and view them all in a Brady Bunch-style segmented window. Then you can cut from shot to shot as if you were switching from camera to camera during a live broadcast. Press play in the Timeline and use your mouse to select each shot when you want to make a cut. The clips will appear in the timeline separated by edit points that you can adjust with the standard editing tools.

Final Cut Pro also includes a powerful real-time effects engine. You can choose from 150 built-in effects and filters for adding big-budget effects to even the smallest budget production. And because Final Cut Pro is packaged with Motion 3, you can easily assemble flashy graphics packages without leaving the native Final Cut environment. Simply highlight a clip, right-click and Send to Motion Project. When you're done adding filters and graphics, you can bring the finished clip right back into the Timeline.

Final Cut Pro's programming architecture is also surprisingly open for a famously closed company like Apple. Apple has chosen to base Final Cut's code on XML, making it easy for third-party developers to create plug-ins and add-ons for expanding the Final Cut experience. Final Cut's internal effects engine, for example, runs on a codec called FxPlug, which Apple has made available to third-party effects developers.

But even the coolest video editing software isn't free from problems. In the next section, we'll look at some of the drawbacks of Final Cut Pro.


Problems with Final Cut Pro

One of the drawbacks with Final Cut Pro is that it only works on Macintosh computers.
One of the drawbacks with Final Cut Pro is that it only works on Macintosh computers.
© Andrew Cutraro/Getty Images

Final Cut Pro is a complex piece of software that's subject to the same bugs and glitches as any other widely used computer program. But small ticks aside, there are some broader issues with Final Cut Pro that keep the message boards buzzing with frustrated users.

Because the market for professional video editing software is very small, Final Cut Pro will forever be compared with the AVID Media Composer, hands down the industry standard for feature film and television editing. One of the major complaints that professional editors have with Final Cut Pro is its media management system.


AVID uses a database-style system to organize and manage all of the files that are associated with a project. Whenever a clip is renamed -- in the hard drive, the file browser, on the timeline, in the effects area -- the clip is renamed throughout the system. There's no chance of losing a clip by renaming it or using it in another project.

With Final Cut Pro, unfortunately, there are plenty of ways to misplace files on the system. That's because Final Cut Pro uses two separate systems for organizing project files: the Finder and the Browser.

All applications and files on a Mac are accessible and searchable in the Finder. If you have video clips saved on your computer, then they're located in some folder in the Finder. To use those clips in Final Cut Pro, you need to import the clips from the Finder to the Browser. If you move or rename any of the clips in the Finder, that will break the link to the same clip in the Browser, making the clip inaccessible [source: Genius DV]

Some users have been frustrated with how Final Cut Pro works with newer tapeless camcorders. Tapeless camcorders record directly to built-in hard drives or removable media cards. One of the more popular tapeless formats, called AVCHD, wasn't compatible with Final Cut Pro until a recent upgrade. Even now, the AVCHD video must be transcoded to an intermediate Apple codec before it can be edited in Final Cut Pro, which can be a lengthy process. Still other tapeless formats won't work at all with Final Cut Pro or Macs in general.

For some users, the main problem with Final Cut Pro is that it's only available for the Mac. If you're an amateur filmmaker who has already invested in a high-end Windows system, you might hesitate to switch to an expensive Mac just to use a proprietary piece of Apple software. AVID, for example, is available for both PC and Mac, as is Adobe Premiere.

Also, Final Cut Pro is no longer available as a stand-alone purchase. To buy Final Cut Pro 6, you must buy the entire Final Cut Studio 2 suite of application, which retails around $1,300. You can, however, buy Final Cut Express as a standalone for $200.

Another issue for professional editors is marketability. If you want to work with the majority of studios and production houses in Hollywood, you need to be an expert in Avid, not just Final Cut Pro. Even though Final Cut Pro is gaining popularity in high-end professional circles, the talent pool of highly experienced editors is still shallow when compared with AVID.

We hope this has been a helpful introduction to Final Cut Pro. For lots more information on video editing, audio editing and related topics, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Avid vs. Final Cut: 2006." Inhofer, Patrick. Los Angeles Final Cut Pro User Group. February, 2006. (
  • "Editing." Final Cut Studio Tutorials. (
  • "Final Cut Pro 5, A First Look." Martin, Steve.  May 18, 2005. (
  • "Final Cut Pro 6.0.1" Curtis, Mike. Macworld. June 27, 2007. (
  • "Importing Footage." Final Cut Studio Tutorials. (
  • "Media Management in Final Cut Pro." GeniusDV. (
  • "Overview of the Interface." Final Cut Studio Tutorials. (
  • "Tapeless camcorders are not a Mac's best friend." Chen, Brian. Macworld.  June 5, 2008. (
  • "Using Replace, Superimpose and Fit-to-Fill Methods in Final Cut Pro. (