iMovie is a good place to start a life as an editor, but it’s got several limitations. If you’ve done a few projects and you’re looking for more freedom in how to place clips, how to finesse your edits, or simply need a wider selection of titles, Final Cut Pro is an obvious next step.
The general flow of the app is similar: you’ll bring things in at the top left, add them to a timeline, then export to a new file. But where iMovie abstracts complexity away, Final Cut Pro often exposes it. The power on offer here can make the transition daunting for a newcomer, but the two apps share enough common ground that you won’t need to entirely change your way of thinking. Here, you’ll find a bunch of tips to help make the transition a little easier.
Also don't forget that there is a free 90 day trial of Final Cut Pro, so why not try it out upgrading your projects?
Similarities and differences
At first glance, moving up to Final Cut might not seem like such a stretch, especially if you begin by sending your iMovie Library to Final Cut Pro. Events still hold your clips, and Events still live in a Library in the top left corner, next to Titles and additional audio.
Clips still appear as thumbnails, and you can still skim through them. When you add clips to a timeline, you can trim and rearrange them, transition between them, add audio below, fade audio in and out easily, and place titles above. The timeline in iMovie is still where it starts in FCP (called the Primary Storyline) but you can take it much further.
There’s still a single viewer for source clips and your timeline, but here in FCP you can zoom it in to see more detail, or zoom out.
And when you look a little closer at the interface itself, you’ll find many more menus, controls and icons to expose all that power hiding in the background. Indeed, the extra controls might seem daunting, but it’s not hard to learn how to drive this more professional app.
Near the top right, three buttons allow you to show or hide entire sections of the interface, filmstrip menus in the browser and in the timeline control how they appear, and the menus around the viewer give you plenty of options.
You can change the look of everything with the commands in the Window > Workspaces submenu, and bring up several extra windows with Window > Show in Workspace. If you get lost in new interface panes, you can always head back to the Default workspace with ⌘0.
Probably the most important new window is the Inspector (⌘4) where you can control almost any property of a selected timeline clip. In iMovie, all you’ve got is a small thin strip above the viewer, and it’s not enough. The Inspector’s tabs enable a deep dive into every facet of a clip, a transition or a title, and you have much more control in Final Cut Pro compared to iMovie. If these sliders and checkboxes feel like too much — at least at first — simply ignore them, and return later when you’re more comfortable. (TIP: to place the playhead on a selected clip, ⌥-click a the clip.)
One thing you should get your head around fairly quickly is the concept of media management. In iMovie, this is hidden, and while it can be abstracted away in FCP, if you don’t understand what’s going one, you’re likely to simply run out of hard drive space.
First, each job you do should probably live in it its own Library, and you can make as many as you need (File > New > Library). You can import your media inside a Library as iMovie does, or, if you want to manage your media more carefully, store it outside the Library with the “Leave media in place” option when you import. I’d recommend still storing it in the Library for now, because there’s far less to go wrong, but if you want to collaborate, storing externally is a wise choice.
Second, you’ll want to turn off Transcoding, including making Optimised or Proxy versions of your files as you import. These options make it easier to work with difficult codecs or huge amounts of footage, but they probably aren’t needed with lower end cameras. If you want to transcode later, it’s a simple right-click away, and proxy workflows can be a great way to deal with huge projects in a small amount of space.
Third, you’ll probably want to disable Background rendering in the Preferences. With it on, FCP will render away while your Mac is idle, creating a final version of your video to make sure any Mac can play back any effects and transitions you’ve added to your clips. But this will take huge amounts of hard drive space, and is only usually needed for heavy-duty effects on a modern Mac. Turn it off and see if your Mac can handle your workflow.
To reclaim space if this option has been enabled, select your Library, then choose File > Delete Generated Library Files to clean out anything you don’t need.
iMovie does let you make Favorites, recording the best parts of your clips, but FCP goes way further. Before you select the good parts of each clip, spend a bit of time assigning Keywords to your clips first. With the Keyword window, you can categorise clips by whatever you like: the type of shot, who’s in it, what’s in it, where it was, and you can add as many keywords to each clip as you like.
Don’t stop at just one keyword! Adding a keyword means you can find that clip in a matching Keyword Collection, and if you tag a clip with water, boat, telephoto, slow-mo and sun, you’d find that clip in all of those separate keyword collections at the same time.
Add favourites to the mix and you’ll quickly locate the best parts of all shots with sun and water, for example. Smart Collections can gather complex search results automatically, and you’ll also find you can add notes to clips, add markers to store more information, and discover a wealth of other metadata in the Inspector. This will all scale from small projects to large — there are many ways to work, and organising now will help you hugely later in the edit, when you need to find replacement shots.
You’ll also want to think about shooting with multiple cameras at once, because if you have, now’s the time to sync them together into multicam clips. There are whole new workflows to explore with multiple cameras, but for now, just know it’s an option.
Far more powerful editing
You’ll notice that the timeline here has a consistent speed when playing back. There’s no minimum size for a clip, and you’ll need to manage the scale of the timeline more often. Use ⌘+ and ⌘- to zoom, or ⇧Z to see everything.
As you start a new Project (the name here for a timeline, no longer just a “movie”) you can and should exactly specify the resolution (1080p/UHD 4K) and frame rate (24/25/30p) you want to deliver, which may not the be the same as everything you shot. Vertical, 4K, 8K and custom resolutions are possible, and while you may not need them today, your clients may tomorrow. iMovie’s approach (and Final Cut’s automatic setting) assumes that the first clip you add is like most of the others, and sometimes that just isn’t true.
When you want to stack two or more clips above your main clip — go right ahead, because there’s no vertical limit here. You can scale or position them as you wish with the Transform controls in the Inspector, or the on-screen controls; create a complex visual multi-screen display if you need to. While individual connected clips are independent, you can group several connected clips together in a storyline (⌘G) to enjoy the gap-free nature of the magnetic timeline above that primary storyline.
Higher clips are still connected to clips below, but if connections are getting in your way, hold ` (to the left of the 1 key) to ignore them. If you want to make minor adjustments that don’t cause ripples down your timeline, press T to switch to the Trim tool and perform a roll (drag the edit point between two clips) or slip edit (drag on a clip to change the part of a clip in use). Or if you don’t want anything to move, press P to switch to the Position tool and pretend you’re using FCP 7 or Premiere.
Holding R in iMovie allows you to select ranges to change volume, and the same trick works here. That’s switching you to the Range Selection tool, and here it also allows you to select an area for a speed change. You’ll find the speed controls in a menu to the lower left of the viewer, next to some quick fixes for colour and audio, and on-screen controls for position, cropping, and distortion.
While audio in iMovie really isn’t bad, here you can soften any edit. Double-click any clip’s waveform to expand its audio, allowing audio and video edits to happen at different times. That’s something you’ll find hard to give up once you get your head around it. On the flip side, you’ll have to manage audio a little more manually, as there’s no automatic ducking here.
Far more powerful effects
All the effects from iMovie are here, plus many more, and the vast majority allow for a huge amount of customisation. While every instance of a particular iMovie effect looks the same, the Inspector in Final Cut Pro encourages you to change each to suit. The same applies to titles — there are far more choices, and you have far more control with every one. Each 2D title can easily transform to a 3D title with a simple checkbox, and even most transitions offer customisation options.
Colour controls in iMovie are anaemic, but here, they’re glorious — get started with ⌘6, and add more with the menu at the top. There’s a full suite of manual controls available: simple pucks in the Color Board, compact and capable Color Wheels, or the far more complex and powerful Color Curves and Hue/Saturation Curves adjustments. You can apply quick auto-fixes for white balance, use LUTs for pre-packaged looks, and work with HDR and Wide Gamut media too.
A huge range of third-party extras
When the built-in effects and titles aren’t enough, there are many third-party additions available, both free and paid — someone’s probably built what you’re looking for. That’s largely due to to Apple’s companion app Motion, which allows you (or other developers) to create effects, titles, generators or transitions which instantly drop in to Final Cut Pro, although some third-party developers have taken things even further. Look to motionVFX, FxFactory, CoreMelt, LenoFX, Idustrial Revolution and many more to get a taste of what’s out there.
If you need to integrate with a wider professional workflow, you can send it to Resolve for free, or use third-party tools to connect apps in a variety of ways. Editing isn’t always an island, and if you want to work collaboratively, check out PostLab and Frame.io for clever solutions to pro workflows.
Wider export options
As in iMovie, hit the button in the very top right to get started.
The basic export options here (YouTube and Facebook, Computer, Apple Devices) are all going to work well for the most common destinations — putting this online so people can see it. Every video sharing platform will recompress whatever you send them, so just focus on delivering a good-looking file and forget about file size. Final Cut has no shortage of higher-end options if you need to deliver pristine quality for a professional workflow, all the way up to ProRes 4444XQ if you’re working with amazing files and don’t want to compromise.
Still, if you need to directly deliver small files with more control, you won’t find iMovie’s data rate slider anywhere. For fine data rate control for higher-end workflows, purchase Apple’s Compressor, create some presets, and hook them up directly to FCP. If you need really small files that still look great, export to a high-quality Master File and then use the free Handbrake for final conversion.
Taking things further
If all that made sense, you should be up and running. Facebook has many helpful groups if you get stuck, YouTube has plenty of good answers to quick questions, and help is easy to find. But if you need something more substantial, there’s plenty of comprehensive training for your reading and viewing pleasure. I’ve made a few video training courses for macProVideo.com and written a book (at fcpefficientediting.com), so obviously (😀) I’m going to recommend those, but Ripple Training is another great option for video training, and you’ll find plenty of other providers out there too.
Final Cut Pro is a rewarding app to learn, and it’s only getting faster as Apple moves more of Macs to their very fast M1 chips. It’s not hard to learn, and once the penny drops, you’ll never look back. Because it’s so quick to experiment, you’ll be able to produce better edits more quickly than in other apps — and that keeps editing fun. Enjoy!