On the plane to California for the Macworld Expo in January 2001, I ended up sitting with a nice couple from Hollywood who were considering a new computer that would let them do casual video editing alongside the typical Internet and word processing tasks that their outdated Windows system was doing. They’d been planning on a Sony system, but ten minutes watching me play with iMovie on my PowerBook G3 convinced them they needed to take a closer look at the Macintosh.
Desktop Movies — Macs are certainly the way to go for casual video editing, especially now that iDVD makes it easy for amateurs to burn their own video discs that anyone can view in a home DVD player. On the high end, Macs also still reign supreme, and have for a decade. Avid Technology made a name for itself bundling excellent software and custom NuBus and then PCI cards with high-end Quadras and then Power Macs, offering complete, turn-key video editing workstations with the performance of dedicated hardware costing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Today, for professional video editing, Apple’s popular and powerful Final Cut Pro software competes with Avid’s solutions and costs a mere $1,000. Anyone with a Power Mac G4 (or, for that matter, a recent iMac, PowerBook, or even iBook) can now do professional video editing with Final Cut Pro.
Editing Real-Time — What sets Final Cut Pro apart from other professional video editing solutions is its price: $1,000 may seem expensive for software, but compared to hardware costing as much as $25,000, it’s nothing. However, because Final Cut Pro works entirely in software, it’s performance can’t compete with hardware-based solutions. Or rather, it couldn’t compete on performance until now, with the addition of real-time editing capabilities thanks to Matrox’s $1,000 RTMac PCI card. This card stopped me dead in my tracks at Macworld, just a couple of days after I’d told my new friends on the plane all about video editing. It shipped in March and should be considered absolutely mandatory for anyone serious about video editing.
At first, I worried that this review would be all too brief: "If you use Final Cut Pro, you need the RTMac PCI card. If you have it, you can edit in real-time. If you don’t have it, you’ll have to wait for Final Cut Pro to render every little change while you watch the progress bar inch across the window."
The overall package provides quite a bit of functionality. Along with adding real-time editing capability within Final Cut Pro, the RTMac card provides a VGA-style video connector that lets you connect a secondary display.
Matrox also includes an elegant breakout box with S-Video and composite (NTSC or PAL) video in and out, plus stereo audio in and out. The breakout box is a sleek clear-and-grey unit that connects to the card via a nice, long six-foot custom cable, enabling you to put these connectors someplace convenient (like on your desk) rather than behind your computer. You’ll want to connect a digital video camera to the Mac via FireWire, but for working with analog video, the breakout box offers everything you need.
The RTMac card also includes OrganicFX Lite, a generous sampling of excellent transition effect plug-ins from Pixelan. (The full OrganicFX package costs $200, but RTMac owners can upgrade for $130 before 15-Jul-01.)
What’s Real-Time? Basically, for the Final Cut Pro functions supported by the RTMac card, you no longer need to wait while the software renders your work. Typical functions that require long rendering waits include fades, wipes, and other transitions; combining video with graphics; and adding titles or other text. Editing with Final Cut Pro in software alone is often a matter of adding an effect, waiting while it renders to see if it looks the way you want it to, then changing it slightly and waiting while it renders again. Simple effects may take only seconds to render, but hundreds of waits of several seconds each over the course of the day adds up to a lot of wasted time.
RTMac lets you work in real-time with two video layers and one graphics layer, or two graphics layers and one video layer. More complex sequences in your video will still require some rendering, or "proxy real-time" display that approximates the final effect. Reasonably enough, if you use too many real-time effects simultaneously, Final Cut Pro will need to render those portions of your video project. The RTMac manual lists several scenarios that will require you to render your effects rather than see them in real-time, such as simultaneously using a motion effect and an iris transition, or more than one video transition and one motion effect.
Without the RTMac installed, the demo movie file Matrox provided takes just over nine minutes for Final Cut Pro to render on a 450 MHz Power Mac G4. The movie is perfect to show off the RTMac: just under two minutes of footage replete with wipes, fades, text effects, and enough silliness to remind us of the early days of desktop publishing when amateurs used every font and style available. Without the card installed, minor changes require re-rendering, taking anywhere from seconds to minutes depending on what changed. With the card installed, Final Cut Pro simply shows the video in real-time, generating the effects as it goes.
Caveats — Knowing that many reviewers won’t flex Final Cut Pro’s muscles quite enough to get beyond the real-time capability of the RTMac, Matrox noted the situations where the RTMac can’t keep up in real-time. Good examples are sequences involving three or more video layers, or two video layers and two graphics layers, at the same time. In fact, most serious Final Cut Pro users will run into these situations, but I feel the product is still a clear win, since it will eliminate the need to wait for so much of the otherwise time-consuming rendering.
I was more concerned to note that the RTMac card, which I knew doesn’t work with Mac OS X, can’t even be present in a computer running Mac OS X. Users who switch back and forth between Mac OS 9.1 and Mac OS X won’t be able to leave the card in place; simply having the RTMac card installed while Mac OS X is running makes the system extremely unstable. I’d expect the card to sit quietly inside the computer, unused, without making the machine crash. This limitation probably won’t affect heavy Final Cut Pro users, who most likely spend all day running Final Cut Pro in Mac OS 9.1 (since Final Cut Pro itself isn’t yet compatible with Mac OS X). Matrox has a firmware patch in the works to fix this problem but doesn’t yet know when it will be released. Of course, the product will also eventually support Mac OS X directly, after Final Cut Pro does.
Gotta Get Me Some of That — The RTMac is readily available from the usual retailers for $1,000, and the Apple Store is bundling it along with a Final Cut Pro 2.0 Upgrade, and the clever Contour Design ShuttlePRO controller for providing familiar analog video editing controls, for $1,350.
It turns out that my original short review still applies: If you use Final Cut Pro, you need the RTMac PCI card. If you have it, you can generally edit in real-time. If you don’t have it, you’ll have to wait for Final Cut Pro to render every little change while you watch the red progress bar inch across the window.