Back to 1.0: Interview with Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro and iMovie developer Randy Ubillos

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

If you spent time trying out interesting new Macintosh software in the early 90s, you might recognise the name Randy Ubillos. In those days software companies used to credit application developers in the splash screen they displayed while the software started up. Bill Atkinson was credited as MacPaint’s creator in 1984, Thomas and John Knoll were amongst those credited with Adobe Photoshop in 1990. I saw Randy’s memorable name for the first time in the splash screen for Premiere 1.0 when I opened it in 1992:


[image by Riccardo Mori from his System Folder blog]

In April 2015 Randy Ubillos retired from Apple after many years developing video and photo applications such as Final Cut Pro and Aperture. In the 90s he wrote Adobe Premiere 1.0. He started his Mac career working at SuperMac Technologies, a Mac peripheral maker.

Earlier this summer I interviewed Randy on stage at the Bay Area SuperMeetUp in San Jose, California. The evening was part of series of events organised by video user groups in the US and in Europe.

The next Supermeet event takes place in September in Amsterdam and features special guest Walter Murch, who’s worked as sound or picture editor on films with George Lucas, Francis Coppola, Sam Mendes and Brad Bird.

1991 – Adobe Premiere

Alex Gollner: Let’s start at the very beginning… The program that became Premiere…

Randy Ubillos: …originally known as ReelTime.

…was actually demo software. Tell us about that

I was working for SuperMac and they were working on something called DigitalFilm - one of the very first digital video recording cards. It did quarter frame standard definition - they were pushing the limits of the JPEG chips that were available at the time and we needed some software to try it out. In about 10 weeks I put together a demo and we’d bring in people and show them editing on a computer and it was going over pretty well. The marketing department had just gotten out of software at SuperMac and they weren't sure what to do with it and so as it got close to shipping the card in late 1991 my software was sold to Adobe and they released it as Premiere 1.0. 

So they sold the software and didn’t involve you?

Adobe were specifically prohibited from offering me a job, because SuperMac didn’t want to lose me, so I could ask Adobe but I had to specifically do that. I went to lunch with Tim Myers and Eric Zocher from Adobe and we sat down at lunch, there was small talk and eventually they said “So…” and I said “OK. I would like to inquire about a job at Adobe.” There were two of them so they could later corroborate the story and said “That works,” and we started talking about it. 

So Adobe Premiere version 1: Were you the only programmer on it? You developed it all yourself? 

Yes. It took about 10 months.

What did you base your plan for the software on?

I had got into video at high school. At my school in Miami, Florida they had a television in every room. Morning announcements were done over the TVs. I’d installed some of the TVs, we had a TV studio and after the last period, we’d record TV commercials for the Drama club or sports clubs and in the morning we’d put together the morning announcements and in the first period we’d play that back. I got to learn about editing on 3/4" tape decks. Editing was ‘Find your edit points, zero the counters, back ’em up by five counts, and hit ‘Play’ and roll forward’ a very manual process. I learned the concepts of editing there. Going through that on the app is where concepts of tracks came up.

So up until then you weren’t following what Avid and other digital film products were doing?

I’d never seen that stuff. In May of that year we were at Digital World down in Hollywood, and I got to have dinner with some of the people from Avid. They came into SuperMac’s room and seeing this software running on a Mac and playing back digital video. There were definitely some people at Avid who could see that this stuff was going to start migrating down.

So over the next two or three years you created another three versions of Premiere and got to version 4 in a very short period of time.

There were a couple of other guys that joined the team, so by the time we got to Premiere 4, there were three or four of us.

So at that point who was Premiere aimed at?

We weren’t really sure at the time. It was a new thing. Tim Myers [Premiere product manager] and I spent a bunch of time going down to Hollywood; talking to movie studios… we talked to the guys from The Simpsons, we were talking to James Cameron. We were looking at Premiere as a pre-visualisation tool. You could cut something together initially, but the quality level wasn’t nowhere near film. The Simpsons would do their animatics on it.

Because the Digital Film card was around $5,000 - a very expensive card – SuperMac came out with the VideoSpigot - a very inexpensive card. It sold for around $500. It pulled in 1/16th size Standard Definition video, but it was the first time you could plugin in video from a tape or a camcorder into your computer, record it and play it back. Although the marketing people weren’t sure what people were going to do with it, it was cheap ebough for people to buy it to play with it for a while.

Although it was being used by professionals, you weren’t expecting people to do professional things with it yet?

Around the time of version 2 or version 3, we hired Loran Kary to do all the EDL work. We realised that although we weren’t recording at the quality that could go back out to film, we could do an offline edit, create an edit list and do an online with it, or even go to a film cut list [that a negative cutter could use to go back to the source camera footage to make the film master].

We could control a tape deck with RS232, pull stuff in and keep track of all the timecode. We could pull in 3, 4, 5 hours of footage, make your edit - choosing just the pieces you needed, we could go back and redigitise those at a higher quality. We were getting closer and closer to doing actual online stuff. Radius, VideoVision and RasterOps had some cards. They competed with each other on who had the best features. Someone got to 60 frames per second, someone else got to full screen.

1995 – Final Cut Pro

We had been running very quickly, doing versions of Premiere in under a year. I took a month off to decompress and I got a phone call from one of the board members of Macromedia [Adobe’s main competitor in 1995]. They had a big diagram of what they wanted to do. They had a paint program, a vector program and they wanted a video program. They wanted me to come and start a video product. So I went there and we hired a bunch of people. It was going to take 18 months and we were going to have this great video product.

It was going to be in the same vein as Premiere, but restarted. Computers had gotten faster. We were going to do a cross-platform application: Windows and Mac. It didn’t take 18 months. Two years in… three years in… Version 1.0s are incredibly difficult to do because you have no metric on how fast you are moving on things. Once you get to 1.0 you know how long that took, so you can guage better how long things take. They are also difficult to do because you set your sights so high.

We had done a whole design of a 3D scene layout editor so you could visualise a scene and pick where you were going to put your cameras. We shouldn’t have spent time on that stuff while working on a 1.0. That was kind of crazy. There was a script editing feature, there was all this stuff. We were having fun speccing it up, but we didn't get coding faster.

It was hard to find the right set of stuff. Everything seemed super important enough to put into the version 1.0, but the reality is you’ve got to find that right set of stuff. You've got to get it all to work together and put more into 2.0 and more into 3.0.

But Macromedia was bought by Adobe, so what happened to this video software?

By 1998 it was becoming clear to us that Macromedia wan’t going to be releasing our video editor. We knew we were going to be ending up somewhere, but we didn’t know where. At NAB [National Association of Broadcasters show, the main US trade fair for TV technology], Steve Jobs did the keynote and his speech pissed everyone off: “All you guys in the broadcast industry, computers are gonna come along and do all this stuff better” - he ruffled a ton of feathers.

While talking with him back stage was the first point where I realised that Apple might buy our team. It was 1998 and I had friends saying ‘Don’t go to Apple, they’ll be out of business in a year.’ What Steve saw was taking the whole line of computers that Apple was producing and squishing it down to a very small number of machines that all the energy should be focussed into, but they needed applications to bring people to the platform.

He knew that the PowerMac G3 - the first one with a DV connector on it - meant that you didn’t have big expensive digitising hardware: you were going to be able to plug directly in and get really good quality for the time digital video. You were going to be able to manipulate it, store a reasonable amount of it and you were going to be able to edit it.

At what point did you realise that being bought by Apple might be good news?

I don’t know if I thought about it that much. We’d been going for about three years on the project, we went over to them and we had more work to do. Apple wanted to re-look at what it looked like. It turned out to be a good thing. We got to a point right before NAB in ’99 we just said “We are going to show this thing at NAB come hell or high water” and we got the nicest present from Avid because that was the NAB they announced they were leaving the Mac. So there were all these Mac people at NAB saying “I hear Apple have got this new thing” so we got all these customers on a silver platter.

So Final Cut Pro 1.0 comes out and knocks most people’s socks off, and brings in so many more people. Weirdly enough Steve asks a whole different technical team to make an editing tool for ‘real people’ - ‘the rest of us.’ Did you want to be involved?

That happened when we were very compartmentalised. I knew there was something going on, that was a very small team - three or four people - working on that. I thought they were doing cool stuff, but it was something I wasn’t focussed on.

What was the target for Final Cut Pro?

The centre of the target, which I still think is very similar today, is software for the aspirational part of the market. People who want to do something good, most of them not making their living doing video - they would like to some day. They are interested in video and they spend a lot of their spare time doing it. That’s the centre of the target.

It goes out into a broad spectrum. You always find at the higher end, including Hollywood, they are always looking for ways to cut costs. They’re always try to find new stuff that’s lower cost.

2006 - iMovie

At what point did you start paying attention to what iMovie was - in terms of what it meant to you?

I worked on Final Cut up to version 5 I think, when we got software-based real time video effects. At the time my husband and I were taking digital pictures and putting them up on our website and I wanted a better way to work with pictures. I wanted to do more than stick up a grid of pictures, I wanted to put a travel journal journal together - to be able to tell stories along with pictures, so the idea for Aperture came out of that. I started a team - there were six or seven of us who developed that and got that out through version 1.0.

So I’d been away from video for some time and it was nice to come back to it with fresh eyes. We were going on a dive trip and I’d just gotten an HD video camera that we used underwater, and we were in a cage with great white sharks. We had hours of footage that was going to be ‘blue, blue, shark! Blue, blue, blue, shark!’ which was going to be a nightmare to edit. I started to think of better ways to do that. So I had the idea that with filmstrips, you just wave your cursor over them, and that’s where iMovie clip skimming came from. Also being able to click and drag to select like you would text to pull something together.

iMovie’s codename was RoughCut, it was conceived originally as a front end to Final Cut - for creating a rough edit for Final Cut. I worked with a graphic designer to make it look good. When I did a demo of it to Steve [Jobs] in about three minutes he said “That’s the next iMovie.” So I asked when it was supposed to ship, and he said “Eight months.”

The iMovie team was six months into the next cycle. They had been looking for something different: a way to make things easier and simpler.

We knew from day one eight months is not enough time to do a whole new application. We knew we weren’t going to have all the features people wanted in iMovie ’08. We were not surprised at all when that went out. The set of features we said we were going to deliver we delivered. iMovie had been around for quite a while - it was living on some pretty old code. But moving that forward meant we could move very quickly [as iMovie ’08 was all new code].

Did you start thinking of your audience in a different way?

A lot of it was looking at it from my own perspective. I was doing more video myself. Camera and storage costs had come way down, getting to the point where you could do everything on a laptop. It was becoming very personal, so I spent working on versions of iMovie for the Mac and on the phone with some great teams.

2011 - Final Cut Pro X

As Apple seemed to ‘get away with’ that painful relaunch of iMovie, did that help them make the decision about doing the same for Final Cut Pro?

One of the things I like about working at Apple was that Apple didn’t have a problem with starting over again - if that was the right thing to do. You don’t want to talk about ‘sunk cost.’ The effort you’ve put in in the past has gone. From now on, what is the best way to go forward? It doesn’t matter if we spent six months working on some feature. That doesn’t matter. Is it the right feature? If so, great, continue forward with it. If you don’t do that with a product and somebody else who doesn’t have the history, the legacy you’re trying to hold on to will jump in and take things out from under you.

The Final Cut Pro team was trying to figure out what they wanted to do next. X was a big shift. I had a big part in convincing people it was the right thing to do. I will say that I had a different idea of the way the launch might have gone… [audience laughter]

My idea was that Final Cut 7 should stay exactly as it was for about a year, and every time you bought a copy of X you got a copy of 7. They didn’t want to hear it. I knew 16 months before the launch that I was going to have a bunch of arrows in my back. I was going to be blamed for this big transition. It’s the Apple way of doing things: ‘Feet first, jump in!’

The very last conversation I had with Steve Jobs was right after the launch of Final Cut Pro X. I was getting ready to get on a plane to go to London to record the second set of movie trailers - we’d hired the London Symphony Orchestra [to perform the music that was going to be bundled with the next version of iMovie] - and Steve caught me at home: “What the heck is going on with this Final Cut X thing?” I said “We knew this was coming, we knew that people were going to freak out when we changed everything out from under them. We could have done this better. We should have. Final Cut 7 should be back on the market. We should have an FAQ that lists what this is all about.” He said “Yeah, let’s get out and fund this thing, let’s make sure we get on top of this thing, move quickly with releases…” and he finished by asking: “Do you believe in this?” I said “Yes.” He said “then I do too.”

That was from the top - you had the authority to make the big changes. I wish it could have gone differently. I absolutely believed it and still do believe it was the right thing to do: that Final Cut X is a better editor than Final Cut 7 was. It’s more popular, it’s bringing more people into editing than ever were before. People who have never used an editor before find Final Cut X much easier to learn than Final Cut 7.

Talking of bringing new people to editing, what does iMovie for iOS mean to you?

It’s always been phenomenal, the fact that people can people can have an HD editing studio in their pocket - it’s ready to go for editing. People take pictures all the time and publishing them. They tend not to do it as much with video. One of the reasons for that is that historically people have felt that to make a video is this giant involved process. People have this idea that it has to be more complicated than it is, but I enjoy showing people how to make personal movies…


…Randy then went on to give a presentation on how to use Apple tools to make personal films.

Thanks to Randy for the interview. I’m looking forward to his next 1.0 - despite the disruption it is bound to cause.


Thanks to Benjamin Brodbeck for the audio recording and to the Supermeet team for the opportunity to interview Randy. See you in Amsterdam in September!