Earlier this year, after much anticipation and a few delays, Apple shipped Final Cut Server, its media asset management and workflow automation solution. Introduced and previewed at NAB in 2007, this new solution is the result of Apple's 2006 purchase of Proximity and their flagship application Artbox. Final Cut Server's namesake is the video editing software Final Cut Pro, however unlike Final Cut Pro and the other creative applications bundled in Final Cut Studio, Final Cut Server is not a content creation application. In fact it's something quite different: a powerful server-based solution for managing media and assisting users with tools to automate time-consuming pieces of your workflow.
If you are involved with content creation on a daily basis, I'm sure you have wrestled with the same issues as much of the industry over the last few years. We all have an increasing number of media files that require vast amounts of storage and complicated methods to keep everything organized. While the professional video and broadcast industry has had access to industrial strength — and often custom built — asset management tools for many years, recently software manufacturers have focused on building more affordable tools tailored to smaller workgroups.
These new tools have emerged in response to changes in the industry. Content creators are now delivering material for both the web and television, and traditional video production workflows are changing at breakneck speed. The industry has demanded tools to help users organize and manage the increasing number of files that they are dealing with on a daily basis. As users have embraced these solutions, the tools have matured to incorporate not just asset management, but also collaboration and automation capabilities. This provides creatives with more time to be creative, and lets the software worry about doing much of the grunt work of organizing, version management, transcodes, and notifications.
Enter Final Cut Server. Perhaps the easiest way to understand how Final Cut Server fits into an existing workflow is to think of it like a layer that sits between you and your files. It serves as both the gatekeeper, controlling which users can access what files, and as the housekeeper, keeping everything organized and cataloged so you don’t have to. It also has some pretty powerful automation capabilities. Ever wished you had a production assistant that never gets tired or needs a coffee break? Final Cut Server fills this role by automating repetitive pieces of your workflow such as encoding and notifications, so you can keep working without worrying about watching progress bars and sending emails.
So how does all this work? The Final Cut Server application gets installed on a computer running Mac OS X or Mac OS X Server. The system requirements from Apple specify a G5 or Intel Mac. However in a real-world deployment, you’ll want a high-powered Mac Pro or Xserve with many processors and lots of RAM. You will also want to incorporate a large piece of attached storage — most workgroups will want to consider a Promise RAID for fast, redundant storage. If your organization is already using an Xsan for video editing workflow, Final Cut Server can work with the Xsan, managing media and adding automation capabilities.
Installing Final Cut Server is easy. (Once you start customizing it later on is when it gets complicated.) The Installer requires you to make some decisions about what type of workflow you’ll be using and to define locations for storing media. A typical vanilla install of Final Cut Server is quick: 20 - 30 minutes at most.
Once Final Cut Server is installed on your server, the client application needs to be installed on user workstations and laptops. This client application is how your users interact with all the assets that are managed by Final Cut Server. It is a Java application, so it works identically on Mac OS X or Windows — good news for organizations with mixed platforms where producers or managers may run Windows and editors and artists are using Macs. It's dead easy to install: you point your web browser to the address of the Final Cut Server and it creates a local Java application complete with a desktop application shortcut or alias.
In typical Apple fashion, Final Cut Server is very simple to setup and use; you could go out and purchase it at an Apple retail store for $999, install it on a spare machine, and have a team of editors and artists using it the same day. However the true power of Final Cut Server really starts to become apparent when it is customized around a specific workflow. The vanilla install of Final Cut Server includes some great basic capabilities, but there is a wealth of functionality that can be configured and customized by a Final Cut Server admin. For example: Want a drop down menu that allows you to create an H.264, MPEG4, and a poster frame TIFF from any video clip? Final Cut Server can do this, but it needs to be set up and configured using the less-than-user-friendly Admin console. This is the potential hidden cost of Final Cut Server: beyond the cost of the software and hardware, you may end up paying a qualified Apple integrator to customize it around your needs.
Once installed, adding assets to Final Cut Server can be as simple as dragging-and-dropping onto the client application window. When new video assets are added, Final Cut Server creates proxy clips, poster frames, and thumbnails, which it links to the original asset. These proxy clips can be used for reviewing clips over a slow Internet connection — useful for collaborators who are working offsite. If you have a large existing collection of assets, you can point Final Cut Server to relevant directories or volumes and have it generate a catalog of assets automatically. It can even watch these directories for new files and catalog them dynamically. When it encounters a Final Cut Pro project, it will peek inside the project and catalog all linked assets included in the project. In addition to Final Cut Pro projects and video clips, Final Cut Server can catalog files of virtually any type. You can upload scripts or other text as Word documents, stills as JPEGs or PNGs, audio files, or Adobe After Effects or multi-layer Photoshop compositions.
Once assets have been cataloged by Final Cut Server, its collaboration features become useful. Assets can be checked out by users for editing and will remain locked while they are in use. When assets are checked back in, a new version gets created, with Final Cut Server keeping a history of each previous state, and as an asset's state changes, events and notifications can be configured to occur based on criteria you specify. Plus, metadata can be added to an asset at any point: keywords, team members' credentials, client codes, etc. You can then leverage Final Cut Server's search abilities and create Smart Searches to have quick access to assets most important to your various projects.
And then there’s encoding. Final Cut Server’s transcode capabilities are powered by Compressor, the same engine that is included with Final Cut Studio and Logic Studio for video and audio encoding. All of the proxy clips are created using this engine, and it can be leveraged to create QuickTime movies in a variety of flavors.
Here's an example of how this might all come together:
Say you're an editor and you are working with a producer and a motion graphics artist. Final Cut Server can catalog and organize all of your Final Cut projects, clips, images, and audio files. Your producer can use the system to annotate clips and rough cuts, adding comments, suggestions, and approvals. Your motion graphics artist can be uploading Motion projects for you to incorporate into the Final Cut Pro project. Through all of this, the appropriate people can be receiving notifications of these relevant events via email. When your edit is complete, and you’ve incorporated motion graphics and audio, your producer can use set the status to Approved in the system, and it can trigger automatic events such as transcoding the final project to H.264 for the web or MPEG for DVD. When a project is complete, it can archive your assets intelligently and get them out of your way and into safe long-term storage.
When Apple announced Final Cut Server at NAB 2007, they accompanied it with a video of the solution in use at a broadcast news facility. The video showed producers editing rough cuts of news packages inside Final Cut Server, using a shot selection tool to work directly with Final Cut Pro timelines in Final Cut Server. Unfortunately, this feature never made it into the finished release of version 1.0 (or the current release at time of writing, 1.1). If you want to edit a FCP project that's being managed by Final Cut Server, you have to copy that project out of server (using the Check Out command), edit in FCP, and then check it back in to Final Cut Server. This means that anyone who needs the capability to work with FCP projects in Final Cut Server will need a full copy of Final Cut Pro on their local machine.
Also, while Final Cut Server's annotation functionality is a useful way for teams to collaborate and comment on projects and assets, these notes can't be imported back into Final Cut Pro. So if an editor or producer reviews clips in Final Cut Server and adds comments or in/out points, there is no way to access this information in FCP. An editor will need to have the Final Cut Server window open side-by-side with Final Cut Pro. Not exactly the tight integration for which we were hoping.
Unfortunately, the ability to look inside projects for linked media on import exists only for Final Cut Pro projects; when importing a Motion project, you'll need to find and upload all linked files manually. This can be complicated and time consuming. Hopefully Apple will resolve this shortcoming in the near future, as they recently provided documentation for Motion's XML file format.
Finally, while Apple's interface designers have done a good job making the client application feel like a other Mac Pro Applications, it is still a Mac-like skin for the Java code below, so there are a few quirks to using it. Tabbing between data fields doesn't always work as expected and familiar Mac keyboard shortcuts don't always work.
Reservations aside, Final Cut Server is a good 1.0 (or 1.1) release from Apple, and it certainly provides an affordable solution for collaboration, asset management, and transcoding for creative workgroups. The built-in Final Cut Pro hooks for project management and metadata are welcome features, and I'd like to see similar hooks for other Apple Pro Applications (Aperture Server anyone?). The missing shot selection tool and lack of roundtrip annotations to FCP are disappointing, but we can hope to see these features incorporated back in future updates.
Considering Final Cut Server as a possibility for your Final Cut workflow? I’ll be following up this article with some blog posts about more advanced features, including how to set up some custom automations based on clip metadata. Questions about Final Cut Server? Let us know in the comments below.
If you are interested in reading more, you only have a few options at this point. The official Apple Pro Training book by Matt Geller is a little thin, but provides a good place to start. A quick leaf through the first few chapters will give you an idea of some of the complexities involved with deploying a Final Cut Server solution, and the administration chapters will help you understand the ins and outs of customizing its capabilities and integrating it into an existing workflow. Apple’s Final Cut Server site has the typical high-quality narrated video demos we’ve come to expect from Apple. The Xsan community news and forum Xsanity has added Final Cut Server sections to its content pages and forums, which provide a great resource for troubleshooting and technical information. Finally, the PDF manuals that are included with a Final Cut Server installation are also available on Apple’s website: the Final Cut Server User Manual and the Final Cut Server Setup and Admin Guide.