What's the Best NLE Software for Professional Movie Editing?

3 video editing software platforms - which one is best for you?

We’ve updated our “Best NLE Software for Professional Movie Editing” roundup for 2017 – check out the new breakdown if you’re already familiar with the basics of top editing software.

“The world has changed.”

So Galadriel intones as Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring opens. And so has the world of video editing software today.
In 2011, Apple bungled the launch of Final Cut Pro X, dropping many editors into freefall. Some embraced the competition – namely, Avid’s Media Composer (on which The Lord of the Rings trilogy was cut), and Adobe’s Premiere Pro – while the rest held onto the EOL’d Final Cut Pro 7, which remains a formidable, albeit increasingly outdated, solution.
Over the past few years, Apple has fought to redeem FCPX; since launch, it has undergone more than a dozen iterations. “You’ve never had that speed of upgrade [from Apple]”, editor and educator Larry Jordan observed at the SuperMeet in Amsterdam during IBC 2013, “Not even with operating systems.” Many professional features that were missing – such as multicam editing, XML interchange, and with version 10.1, optimization for 4K and other performance enhancements – have been implemented.

But Adobe, the dark horse of the Non-Linear Editing, or NLE, race, and Avid, long the leader, have not stood idly by. Adobe’s move to subscription-pricing-only with Creative Cloud, while controversial, has facilitated the development of a slew of updates and services; the latest overhaul hit June 18. Avid released Media Composer 7 last summer and announced subscription options for its creative tools at this year’s NAB. Check out Lights’ overview of these and more developments for a discussion of how, precisely, “the world has changed”. For now, what I want to do is discuss briefly which of the Top Three – Apple’s Final Cut Pro, Adobe’s Premiere Pro, or Avid’s Media Composer – is “the best” video editing software today.

In a nutshell, it depends on your needs. There is no quantifiably “best” tool. Each of the three has its pros and its cons, which to some degree reflect their respective designs. Let’s look at the options so that you can make an informed decision about which to use.

The 3 Contenders

Final Cut Pro 7's Interface

Final Cut Pro 7’s Interface

Although it’s no longer supported by Apple, FINAL CUT PRO 7 remains popular with some indie filmmakers and production companies who know and trust its stability and feature set. However, its age is beginning to show. For instance, it is the only editing software discussed here that does not support editing with native media; footage must be transcoded. Moreover, as Apple’s operating systems continue to evolve, its future compatibility is not guaranteed.

Premiere Pro's Interface

Premiere Pro CC 2014’s Interface

I. PREMIERE PRO is a relatively straightforward transition for FCP7 editors, so much so that some Final Cut refugees refer to it as “FCP8”. Like FCP7, Premiere assumes a bin-oriented/track-based paradigm in which editors “layer” media in timelines. It took me roughly three days to get up and running with Premiere when I made the switch from FCP7 back in 2012; there’s even an FCP7 keyboard preset built into the program.

Of course, Premiere has its quirks and differences, but the time you’ll spend learning them is rewarded by features such as seamless integration with Adobe’s creative tools, including After Effects. Adobe continues to expand Premiere’s functionality, and user feedback is considered seriously.

Finally, while both Avid and FCPX support editing with native media, Premiere is designed around it. Adobe has not developed its own mezzanine, or intermediate, codec; while you can transcode media to, say, Apple’s ProRes or Avid’s DNxHD, it’s not necessary. Premiere is used by many indie filmmakers and small production companies today. It is cross-platform.

Media Composer 8's Interface

Media Composer 8’s Interface

II. MEDIA COMPOSER is the longtime industry standard. It is a rock solid, cross-platform NLE relied upon by many, especially in the feature film and television worlds. It just delivers, with very little fuss and very few hiccups. When it comes to collaborative workflow, Media Composer has no equal; it can enable every editor on a team to look at the exact same project. When changes are made and saved by a user, they ripple to everyone else’s view.

Like FCP 7 and Premiere Pro, Media Composer assumes a bin-oriented/track-based paradigm, but there are differences that can be confusing for those familiar with Apple’s and Adobe’s offerings. At the beginning of the NLE era, Avid was an offline editing system designed to deliver the creative cut to the negative cutter. In other words, a digital-to-film workflow was built into its DNA, as was the input of professional editors over many years. This has informed Avid’s approach to everything from metadata management, to how the program facilitates the different phases of the editing process (in different “modes” of operation), to keyboard layout. One could argue that Media Composer prioritizes logic and efficiency over accessibility and presentation, two areas where Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro shine more brightly.

Some editors choose to climb Media Composer’s steep learning curve in order to take advantage of its powerful trim mode, the design of which is informed by its historical proximity to film. When it comes to precision work outside of Final Cut Pro’s and Premiere Pro’s default, contextual timeline editing approach, Media Composer is king.

Finally, the program’s Avid Media Access, or AMA, architecture allows a user to link directly to native camera formats without conversion. Although I have not experimented with AMA linking myself, some editors report that performance suffers; unlike Premiere Pro, Media Composer is designed to play with DNxHD, Avid’s mezzanine codec. Even so, AMA linking provides editors with a way to get up and running with Media Composer’s power and stability very quickly.

Final Cut Pro X's Interface

Final Cut Pro X’s Interface

III. FINAL CUT PRO X may be the new kid on the block, but by most accounts, it’s beginning to grow up. I’ve played with FCPX only briefly, but it was enough to convince me that Apple didn’t just build Final Cut from the ground up; rather, it set out to revolutionize the entirety of the editing process.

Gone is the traditional track-based paradigm. Gone is the nomenclature of bin-based organization. Instead, among other innovations, FCPX offers a trackless, “magnetic” timeline intended to help editors work more quickly “without having to worry about creating tracks, assigning destination tracks, and moving clips between tracks.” Personally, I found this frustrating – in part because I’m used to the manual control that track-based editing affords – but I can see the potential. It’s a classic instance of Apple’s “trust the software” approach to design.

Equally revolutionary is FCPX’s approach to media organization. The equivalent of FCP7’s “bins” are “events” and “keyword collections”; subclips are “range-based keywords”; and markers with duration are “favorites” and “ranges”. The organizational power, here, is truly impressive. For example, in FCPX’s paradigm, a single clip can exist in multiple keyword collections at the same time. This means it’s not necessary to duplicate a clip and locate it in a second bin if you want it to appear in two places at once – something I’ve done on many occasions with Premiere Pro while managing BRoll and interview selects. Keywords keep a project clean and searchable, laying the groundwork for a manageable edit.

Because FCPX got off to a rocky start and is only now beginning to find its feet, it’s less commonly used by indie filmmakers and production companies today. There’s no denying that FCPX’s ranks are growing, however, bolstered especially by newcomers to the field who have yet to “buy in” to an editing ecosystem. I, for one, will be keeping an eye on FCPX’s development, as I feel that Apple is blazing a bold trail. It should come as no surprise that FCPX is a Mac exclusive.


What Should You Choose?

So which video editing software is right for you? If you’re working as a freelance editor, it can be helpful to know all of the options; generally, the more tools you’ve mastered, the more marketable you’ll be. If you hope to break into the world of film and television post-production, Media Composer is pretty much a Must.

But if you’re producing your own content, you have your pick.

Since FCP7 is essentially dead, I might look to “FCP8” – that is, Premiere – as a replacement, especially if my project is heavy on visual effects. Premiere also would be an attractive option for projects with multiple media formats, since I could work with content natively. In a collaborative, deadline-driven environment, Media Composer would merit serious consideration. Finally, if I were a one-man-band reporter or creating a contained documentary project, I might take FCPX for a spin to capitalize on its robust organizational capabilities.

The bottom line is that there is no wrong answer, here. Apple, Adobe, and Avid continue to develop and support their products, providing filmmakers with a variety of world class tools.

Remember that at the end of the day, the audience doesn’t care what you used to cut your film. They care about your film. So identify your needs, choose what works for you, and take us to the slopes of Mount Doom.

What do you think? Vote for your NLE of choice below!

What is your preferred video editing software?

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For more details, explore the rest of our ongoing series about Non-Linear Editing (NLE) software for professional movie editing:

Part I, July 2014 – What’s the Best NLE Software for Professional Movie Editing?
Part II, June 2015 – Quick Guide: Best Video Editing Software in 2015
Part III, January 2017 – Best Video Editing Software for Indie Filmmakers in 2017


 Michael Koehler, with

If you’d like to learn the nuts and bolts of how to make a movie with your editing software, we invite you to enroll in our online filmmaking course – more curated than a blog, more interactive than a textbook, more flexible than traditional film school.


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