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Unlocking the Secrets of Final Cut Pro
DV Companion: The Intelligent Assitant for Apple's Final Cut Pro

Type in a general keyword or question, say, "timecode." It returns five pages of results, offering a number of different directions for further enquiry. We're looking for general information, and clicking on "About Timecode" returns detailed discussions of DV timecode, SMPTE timecode, drop and non-drop frame, LITC versus VITC, record run and free run and more—as basic or as specific as you need.

At the bottom of the Search window is a link for "Broaden my search." Clicking this will include all the Help Books installed on your Mac in the search, a feature that offers tantalizing prospects to those of us with questions that span applications.

I've been working with the DV Companion for a few months, and I'm still being surprised at how much I keep finding. Today, I searched for "multi camera" and was absolutely floored by the amount of information I found on the vexing topic of editing multi-camera shoots. There were pages of information, with links to such integral topics as media management and compositing multiple layers. There were also links to related topics, such as editing recordings of live events or documentaries and the different techniques for each. Looking for more basic information, on how to edit a music video for example, similarly yields several pages of information and nearly two dozen links to other related topics.

Throughout Final Cut Pro in fact, you can select the level of help you need. In DV Companion's parlance, Strategies provide the broad overviews and general principles. Techniques describe desirable outcomes and offer guidelines on reaching them. The last two categories of help are complementary: Tactics describe specific activities and how to accomplish them, and Tasks actually show how to accomplish them.

Click the image to read this Tactic.

There's a common jest that Final Cut Pro has the best title tool in the business, and it's called Photoshop. So let's look at how to import a title from Photoshop. A pretty specific question, it turns up a Tactic. Since it's also a fairly simple question, this is one of the shorter Tactics, most of which are several times longer than this one and fully illustrated.

Note at the top of the window the link for "Help me use a Photoshop file for titles." This brings up a small window in the lower left of the Final Cut interface, with buttons to play, pause or rewind the movie. Other buttons will return you either to FCP if you've seen what you need or to the Companion for more help.

Because the movies are built on wired sprites (vector-based animations), they're remarkably small. Here are the first and second Task movies for importing Photoshop files with their layers preserved.

(A tech note detour: Apple apparently broke something in its development of QuickTime 4.1.1 and 4.1.2 that prevents these movies from loading properly into the Task palette, so this single element of the DV Companion only works with QT 4. The movies themselves still work fine, of course, and there's an easy enough workaround that you can use if you're stuck with the broken versions of QT: Just look at the movies as you need them. They live in the Mac OS' Help folder, exactly where you'd expect. For the movies we just saw, navigate through the folders System > Help > Final Cut Pro Companion > 07LogosTitles > Tasks, and you'll find the Photoshop 1 and 2 movies. Fortunately, this is a rare problem, and a solution from Apple is forthcoming. In the meantime, the DV Companion continues to work as it always has, offering whatever level of just-in-time assistance you need.)

It seems quibbling at this point, but one feature I'd love to see added to the DV Companion is something like a "Do it for me" button. After you've read the description and seen the demonstration, wouldn't executing the task be the ultimate in intelligent assistance? I know that you wouldn't want to select this option every time you needed help; and "Do it for me" wouldn't apply to something like keyframing the distortion of a frame (here's the first of 3 movies illustrating this Task, by the way). I'd still be interested to see what might happen if Philip Hodgetts and his team of Wired Sprites took application control to the next level. And for that small percentage of folks who have internet connections on the computers they use for editing (while I don't on my main workstations, I do on my PowerBook), it would be fun to see an option in the DV Companion's Sherlock capabilities for searching the internet.

Nevertheless, I think you can see at this point that the DV Companion not only delivers information in new and helpful ways, but does so with exceptional quality. This is truly excellent instruction, pleasingly presented. New FCP users will find it invaluable for making their way through Final Cut Pro, which, as a genuinely professional level tool, can be daunting. Even the most experienced users will find that the DV Companion will save countless hours of experimenting, a life saver for producers on deadlines.

The one downside of the DV Companion is that it will forever raise your expectations of teaching materials. After using it, books and videos, while still maintaining their charm and having their specific uses, will feel hopelessly clunky, if not downright archaic. Final Cut Pro is just one application, of course, and it's easy to imagine what might happen to the concept of online help if the Mac-only technologies in the DV Companion were applied to the Mac OS, development applications for the Web and multimedia design, as well as other video applications like After Effects. The possibilities are endless, really.

As many times as we've all heard Final Cut Pro called "revolutionary"—an overused word, but largely justified in this case, I think—the fact is that the software is worthless if you can't use it. That's why I find the DV Companion so compelling, a crucial component of the digital video revolution: FCP offers the tools, but the DV Companion enables anyone to use them. As you explore it, your productivity will increase, and so will the pleasure you take in your work. While it's possible to use FCP without the DV Companion, I can't imagine a reason why anyone would want to try.

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