Ever meet a truly driven editor? Almost insanely driven? Someone who generates a crazy amount of product in less time than anyone else? Someone who has some marginally acceptable knowledge of compositing, animations, plug-ins and sound design, but when it comes to just sitting down and crafting huge lengths of storytelling, their razor-sharp instincts play through the script effortlessly like a jazz musician?
Long before grand visions of cloud collaboration, subscription-based apps, review and approval services, render farms, 4K, petabyte archive systems or even mind-dumbing arguments on Facebook over which hard drives are better, there were craft editors.
We unlocked a room, flicked a light switch and pulled up a stool. Leaning over the converted laundry bin in the corner, we rifled through clips of film footage. Yes that’s where such terms came from—they were lengths of film, measured by the foot and clipped-off at scene changes. Where was our edit system? A Rivas splicer, sticky with tape residue, sat on the 6-plate Steenbeck up against the wall. There was nothing to click on, and no firmware to install. Collars up, so that the selects hanging over our necks didn’t get sweaty. Lunch? Skipped, unintentionally as always. A river of coffee flowed for 18 hours straight. All we lived and breathed for days, weeks or even months were the pages of the script pinned to the wall.
This is not fetishizing over days past. This is craft editing. This is total immersion into the storytelling process—one person in a room, madly pursuing an idea.
Where did that go?
Make no mistake—the core concept of craft editing is still here, and so are we. The tools have changed. The tangibles feel different. Film is nearly gone. Tape is nearly gone. Media formats shift constantly with the forces of consumerism, and we either lean forward to ride the wave or get caught in the undertow, struggling for breath. But the purpose behind craft editing is the same.
It seems diluted though, doesn’t it? Editors have removed themselves from their root focus. When things were simpler, editing also meant script editing. We ran “editorial,” much like the editor at a newspaper. Today we run “post.” We were once masters of constructing ideas through grammar and syntax. We thought in terms of subjects and predicates, independent and subjective clauses. We acted on those ideas through visual narrative and sequencing. When scenes weren’t working, we saved them. That was our craft. (If you haven’t read this book, do so immediately.) But that was also in a time when “offline editing” didn’t actually generate a finished video. It generated an EDL. Here we are decades later, and our scope encompasses the entire post process. We certainly generate finished videos. Lots of them. We’ve shifted to jockeying codecs and key frames, creating titles in 3D space, updating plug-ins, round-tripping through compositing and coloring programs, fixing mismatched version environments, tech supporting whatever junky computers or mobile phones our clients are reviewing rough cuts on, exporting in 4K, and so on.
There are also mountains of distractions to deal with. What distractions? Well if we’re reading this blog right now, we’re not editing. We may be rendering, importing or exporting, but we’re not pushing any buttons.
Today we beg for distractions. We check Avid Blogs, #postchat, Avid Editors of Facebook, AOTG feeds, Avid-L2, The Cow, the excellent 5Things series by Michael Kammes and so on. We love them. We LOVE them! They give us links, which prompt us to create countless Google tabs, which allow us to read up on every smidgeon of technology imaginable. We drool over every new camera, new app, new hardware and new bloated set of features that are thrown at us.
But stop. Take a breath.
“Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth…there is no spoon. Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
– Spoon Boy, The Matrix (1999)
It is far too easy for us to get caught in the current of technology, which is often swift and exciting yet not very deep. We find ourselves too far downstream from where we intended. We justify it as multi-tasking, but really we’re just getting lost down rabbit holes, following the wrong rabbits.
Think of an audience member. Right now, think of a person in a theater somewhere. Someone is watching something somewhere, always. And television, with thousands of channels in hundreds of countries, something is on somewhere, always, and someone is watching it, always. Actually there are thousands, millions, watching the things we make—our craft—right now. We made all of it. As a world of editors, we have all contributed.
But although we lust over our precious technology, our audiences could care less. We need to stop bending the spoon, and ourselves. Just stop, if only for a moment.
Occasionally we need to look away from our screens. We need to put away our iPhones. There are physical benefits to taking a break (visit Fitness in Post), but for the moment we’re thinking beyond that. We need to stop being self-serving and self-centered. We need to solely serve the story we are working on. Stare at a blank wall for a while. Look into the abyss behind it. Try to remember how we got here. In some cases (no, in most cases) we’ll need to discover how to get back to dry land. We need to get back to being that one person in a room, madly pursuing an idea. Film? Tape? Digital media? Who cares? Nobody. Really.
We need to return our focus to the story.
“Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful… So audiences will not be drawn to the technology; they’ll be drawn to the story. And I hope it always remains that way.”
– Steven Spielberg
The credits finish. The lights come up. What are people talking about when they walk away from a theater or turn off a TV? Perhaps they’re debating camera angles and codecs? No, they are discussing the story. They’re talking about the characters and the plot they were caught-up in.
As editors this is our craft, our responsibility. This is where we eat and sleep.
The writers, producers and directors are counting on us. They’ve done all they can in pre-pro and in filming to create a mountain of options for us. We are the last gauntlet the story must run through before being fed to the wolves. Sure we have somehow become the masters of codecs and apps, but as the foster parents of a film we must be far more than just technical, artsy-fartsy types. If we are going to be hired back, we need to be both the editorial department’s business leader and its chief content officer. We need to over-deliver, under-deadline. This means only one thing: story. All other aspects can be contracted. We are the ones who need to deliver that finished, watchable thing that perfectly conveys the vision of everyone involved… all while carrying the audience’s attention, believably.
How do we start? We need a script of course. Sometimes it arrives already finished. Sometimes as with documentaries, it gets created in the edit bay. Even if the script is a pile of 3×5 cards or an endlessly rambling text document, it’s a start. We’ve all done work as Script Editors on the side, so we can handle it. Editorial minds are wired to funnel those ideas. We are storytelling sausage makers. (Just make sure we invoice for the extra script formatting work.)
In documentary there is an additional step: transcriptions. Interviews are not scripted, so someone in our process needs to get them transcribed, word-for-word. Beginners are always baffled when they realize this really does mean typing everything manually into a word processor. Fortunately many contractors exist so we don’t have to do it ourselves. (Here in the US, a favorite is Accurate Secretarial.) The process is simple—upload a low-res proxy or even a private YouTube video, and then wait for the transcript to be emailed back. Most services are quick and provide amazing detail.
So we have a script, and maybe some transcripts. We’ve spent days or weeks discussing the story and the deliverables with the writer, producer and director. Now what?
We are editors, so we need an edit system.
The Edit System
Mac or Windows, pick one. It doesn’t matter. For software, Final Cut Pro 7 is nice and so is Final Cut Pro X. Adobe Premiere Pro works great too. So do Edius, Vegas and now even Resolve. The list goes on and on. They all work. Of course they do, don’t be misled. No one watches a movie and says, “Oh that was made on a ___ system.”
Each one of those options is like a hammer—whether found in a hardware store or a dollar store, whichever hammer we find will surely drive a nail. Of course it will. So it doesn’t matter.
I’m lying of course. It actually does matter. The edit system we choose is the rope keeping us on the mountain. It is our lifeline, an extension of us. It may not define us but it’s certainly defines how we enter and exit our day. As craft editors we are left alone with the project, unsupervised, for long stretches of time. So when we’re in that store staring at hammers, we ask: are we hanging a picture frame or building a house? And how many houses? If this is the only hammer in the toolbox, will it last?
Enter Avid Media Composer. (Most of us old dinosaurs just call it Composer.)
Composer caters to every kind of workflow because it was the users of every kind of workflow out there who helped to create it. Its concepts are seamless and intuitive, making sense in logical, human terms.
Oliver Peters, a well-known and respected editor and colorist wrote an outstanding blog article (here). In it he gives a beautifully simple explanation of what most filmmakers believe are Composer’s shining qualities.
Others in the industry share a similar respect. Reading Avid’s Customer Stories is always an inspiration. Gary Bettan from Videoguys always gets deeply detailed when writing about Composer. And it’s always great reinforcement when we see how Composer users swept the ACE Eddie Awards in any given year.
One of our favorite qualities is how Avid constantly updates Composer—even older versions. They’re still adding to software that was released two years ago. And despite all the updates over the decades, Avid really hasn’t changed it much. Bugs get fixed and features get added but many core workflows have remained—the ones that have spoken to filmmakers for decades.
Composer also has a feature within it that no one else has—one that caters to the practical storyteller in all of us. As craft editors, we don’t just move clips around. We work on huge, scripted projects and want something more than just an edit system. We want Composer’s crown jewel—its Script-Based Editing environment, bolstered by two fiercely desired add-ons, ScriptSync and PhraseFind.
1. Script-Based Editing
Avid’s Script-Based Editing environment is our beloved interface within Composer because it does something amazing – it allows us to sync our video clips right to our script. It’s like editing video right on top of the script inside Microsoft Word. (Well OK, it’s not as elegant as Word but you get the idea.)
Steve Audette (@stevecutsdocs) is Senior Documentary Editor at PBS Frontline and an expert at the broadcast documentary workflow. While instructing a class at NAB in 2014 he described Composer as, “…still the most thoroughly and thoughtfully crafted tool for editors.” His workflow is deeply rooted in Script-Based Editing, which he describes in this video.
Though it’s been around for a generation (read its history here), the Script-Based Editing workflow is surprisingly unknown. Even power-users of Composer may have seen this functionality but never bothered to get into it. (I’ve been in many certified Avid training courses, and it’s just not taught well enough.) Those who know it love it. It’s one of the few benefits to Composer that no competitor has been able to top.
Many craft editors regard Composer’s Script-Based Editing environment as the most powerful asset in Avid’s entire product line.
On massive documentary projects, many freelance editors even rent their producers a laptop with Composer on it, solely because of this. All the clips are imported and synced to the script, and then the laptop is handed over to the producers, sometimes for months. They lock themselves in a room, bouncing between the Script-Based Editing environment and Microsoft Word to create their first interview assembly. (Every single one of my producers calls it an immersive and enjoyable creative experience.)
Nested inside Composer and created by a company called Nexidia, ScriptSync is a game changing add-on to the Script-Based Editing environment. The process of syncing videos to the script can be time consuming and labor intensive. ScriptSync does it with one click by listening to the phonetics of the audio and syncing it to the text in the script. It can do a day’s worth of manual syncing in about 20 minutes.
For many editors, especially in documentary and sports, PhraseFind is the greatest invention since Composer itself. Also created by Nexidia, it allows users to type a word, and search phonetically through the media to find every instance of audio in which that word was spoken. Is a film scene destroyed because of an ambient noise during a vital word? Does a documentary interview end all of his sentences sounding like a question? PhraseFind allows us to replace that word with a better sounding one within ten seconds.
If editing is swinging a hammer, then Composer is using a nail gun. Operating with these tools in combination is simply the apex of workflows. Editors who are new to discover these in combination get blown away, and seasoned aces refuse to leave it behind. We once again become an extension of the writing staff. We become engaged in paragraphs and words rather than just sights and sounds. We get pulled away from the temptation to turn on the computer and just start clunking-away at video editing. We’re in the whole picture. We are craft editing.
OK, so here we are at day one of the edit. The director has just walked in with a giant pile of media. Script in-hand, seated at Composer, we need to begin the edit. The footage has to go somewhere. How do we manage it all?
Let’s dispense with the craziness surrounding storage right here and now. Look at it from the context of our original idea—one editor in a room.
“That’s all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That’s all your house is – a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.”
– George Carlin
For the past 100 years, long format projects have needed three storage locations for an edit to happen. They still do. The first holds nothing but shot footage (the negatives from the camera). The second holds the media being edited (one-light film transfers). The third is the fortress into which we archive the project.
Today editors reign over a vastly expanding empire of hard drives. Redundancy Rules!!! While operating without redundancy means faster drives and makes us feel sexy and dangerous like characters in a Tarantino movie, from a business sense it’s just plain stupid. So with redundancy, storage ends up costing more in total than the edit system itself. This is normal. But with that much investment, the most important element to storage is… drumroll… the person managing it.
Once again, it’s on us as editors.
So let’s expand on this. Here is one financially secure workflow many editors are currently engaged in. Let’s pretend we’re editing a documentary for PBS.
1. Shot Footage
The director shoots stuff, and then puts the footage on a hard drive. It gets duped to a second drive. The first goes on the director’s shelf and the second goes to the editor. The editor copies it to a third drive. The second drive goes on the editor’s shelf and the third gets plugged into Composer. (Whew!)
Format the third drive NTFS (Win) or OSX Journaled (Mac). Name it “RAW_[project]”. (Pick any 3-letter abbreviation for the project.) Never edit with this drive. It’s just for accessing the shot footage, transcoding from it, and then putting back on a shelf.
2. Footage for Editing
For editing, we need a fourth drive. Format this drive the same, and name the drive “AVID_[project]”. Self-contained RAID units or shared storage systems work great here too, depending on the quantity of footage and thus size of storage needed.
Most editors prefer individual drives and RAIDs over shared storage because everything is cleanly encapsulated. Neat little boxes, that’s what we like. It’s the most secure process we have. When the project stops, the drives get unplugged and then new drives for the next project get plugged-in. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. And when we’re lucky enough to use massive shared storage systems, we treat them like individual drives anyway. In Avid ISIS for example, we create workspaces that are around the same size as an external drive, because when the project is done it’ll need to be archived off to an archive drive anyway.
Now we begin editing. Launch Composer. Create a new project on our computer’s internal drive. Set the Media Creation settings to import and render all media onto the fourth drive, “AVID_[project]”. Next, get the footage into the system. Use AMA, transcode, consolidate, import, record, capture, digitize, a potato launcher or a plunger. It all works. It’s all good.
3. The Archive
Plug-in a fifth drive. Format it the same, and name it “ARCH_[project]. Unplug it and put it away on a shelf. Then every Friday just before you happily leave for the weekend (hahaha), plug-in this ARCH drive and drag the entire contents of the AVID drive to it. Also copy the Composer project from the internal drive to the AVID drive.
When the project is all done, copy the Composer project from the internal drive to the AVID drive. Wipe the ARCH drive and then copy the AVID drive onto the ARCH drive. This means you will be able to plug either drive into any Composer system and see the entire project with all of its media. Lastly put the RAW and AVID drives in a banker’s box. Take the ARCH drive to a secure location off-site, never to be touched again unless the AVID drive fails.
While very labor-intensive, this is security and redundancy at its finest.
The Review and Approval Process
This is the easiest part of the process because every producer and executive producer comes into the edit bay to discuss the film during each increment of its completion.
Ha! Yeah right.
This is the most disorganized, scatter-brained, infuriating part of the job as a craft editor. We’re barely done beginning the project—in fact we’re just starting to formulate creative ideas about style and pacing, and here comes the criticism. Experienced editors are calloused to this. We’re made of rhinoceros hide. Although it bugs us to no end, we know to grab a pencil and start writing because if this is the producer’s first impression, then we can imagine it would also be the audience’s first impression.
But rarely are the producers in the room for the review session. They’re remote. Of course they are. They’re off producing something else—hopefully more footage for us.
Enter today’s world of cloud-based review and approval products. Although none of them are yet a perfect fit to every editor’s needs, the last couple of years have been pretty good to us.
Scott Simmons (@editblog) is one of the most visible craft editors found in social media today. A ceaseless writer of blogs and articles discussing industry topics, he created an article for Pro Video Coalition (here) that is robust with options for review and approval. Since then, we have also been introduced to a new option called “Frame.io” which looks promising.
Effects and Finishing
Animations, titles, effects and plug-ins are examples of ancillary media, which used to be handled by somebody else than craft editors. Well actually they still are on projects that can afford it. But today they are absolutely part of our craft, and a topic often discussed and fiercely argued.
More than just flash, they have become a pure method of how editors can implement their style. Put ten editors on the same project and it’ll have ten different styles—partially because of cutting, but mostly because of effects. In fact, today most editors in broadcast or advertising get hired based on style rather than technique.
There are two different ways to approach effects—leaving the edit system or staying within it. If we are exiting Composer in order to do this work, like in After Effects, then we are in essence assuming the role as animator or title designer and currently abandoning the role of editor. But if we are simply working with things inside of Composer, it somehow feels like we are still editing—a bit of a lie, but a gentle one.
Where effects truly help us thrive as editors is in how they allow us to be creative without hindering us through complicated interfaces. I was recently at a demo of Sapphire 8 by GenArts, hosted by Kevin P. McAuliffe (@KPMcauliffe) at the new Future Media Concepts training facility in Toronto, and was blown away by its new node-based workspace called “Builder.” Many of us in the room momentarily thought we were looking at Avid DS. Check it out (here).
Weeks and weeks have gone by. Finally we’re at the delivery stage. What’s the most important tool we need here? Hint—it has nothing at all to do with craft editing. It’s called a Deliverables List—a simple Microsoft Word doc, created by the producers way back during pre-pro, which itemizes every single thing that needs to come out of the edit. This includes the film itself, trailers or promos, web or DVD extras, frame grabs of content for websites, YouTube uploads, submissions for awards and the credits. Really well organized lists even list rough-cut videos and their scheduled screening dates.
If a project has no deliverables list, then expect zero accountability of any kind throughout the process. Expect last-minute emergencies every day. This is why most editors demand to be part of deliverables list meetings throughout the edit.
For actually making the deliveries, editors can either export what is needed from the app itself, or can export one mammoth-sized video file, and then use other apps to do bulk loads of compressing.
There are lots of options out there. Sorenson Squeeze Pro is often endorsed by Avid editors. A few apps out there work a little faster than Squeeze, but not always as reliable or high quality. We carry around (and in the cloud) a set of custom presets for it. These we pamper and guard as strongly as our credit cards and app passwords. They are our lifelines to digital delivery because they can be plugged into and used on any computer with Squeeze on it. They represent years of trial and error in creating the best looking and best playing video files that can possibly be encoded.
Whew, the project is done! We’ve archived it, we’ve shared clips of it, and we’ve promoted it on our websites. Is that it? Yes that’s it for the project… but not for us as professionals.
If we’re going to keep getting new projects, we need to constantly evaluate how the last one went. We need to look closely at ourselves, our tools and at our workflows. Training ourselves is easy. Find a school, find a user group or just find some training videos. But how do we evaluate—or even fix—our tools and our workflows?
When We Need Help
Sometimes we need help. Things break. Workflows don’t always work. Many issues are based on individual computers or with editors who may be inexperienced with new features or workflows. In high-pressure situations when we have a six-figure art director standing over our shoulders, we need answers immediately.
Craft editors know that Avid has the most thoroughly trained and most instantly accessible support staff of any of its competitors. (I’ve spent hundreds of hours on the phone with them over my career.) As a paid service it is definitely worth it—having a real voice of experience on the other end, available within minutes. Avid also has some of the most thorough online forums, moderated by some of the most experienced people in the industry who volunteer their time.
But the best-known and loved support guru of them all is Avid’s own Marianna Montague. A constant advocate for every customer and every need, we truly believe she has cloned herself several times. Directly or indirectly, she has helped tens of thousands of editors over the years. No other company has anyone who comes close to her abilities. Just remember—although Twitter and Facebook are easy and accessible with our phones these days, the best way to investigate questions in detail with her (or any Moderator) is by posting questions to the Avid Communities: Composer & video questions (here) and Pro Tools & audio questions (here).
The Avid Customer Association / Avid Connect
Remember the story of the boy who cried “wolf”? Eventually no one believed him. The opposite is also true, and especially true in this industry. Anyone who cries “sheep” and gushes over a product saying that everything is good all of the time eventually ends up with the same fate. No one believes constant praise either. In fact, go ahead and name one product that has ever deserved constant praise. (Cue the cricket sounds.)
Avid has kept rock-solid workflows inside Composer, however they also know that all workflows need tweaking and updating as the industry outgrows them. A couple of years ago they began face-to-face discussions with craft editors to identify new workflows as they arise. This has been done through the Avid Customer Association and its live events, called Avid Connect.
“Decisions are made by those who show up.”
– Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing
Jointly led by customers and Avid employees, the Avid Customer Association is a sort of United Nations of post-production. We have begun to drum-up highly active, passionate discussions between Avid and its users—real conversations that many people have been waiting a long time to happen. Many changes in the industry have been causing friction between Composer and some of its users. Yet editors who have been cared for by Composer’s workflows are passionate about giving back. As new workflows arise, they want to help Avid change Composer for the better. We look at workflows in all apps not just Avid’s, and how they are used in all corners of the industry. It’s been a very exciting time.
After a year of research and discovering ourselves, we are now beginning to discuss new product quality needs with Avid’s own product designers. At Avid Connect, craft editors are able to sit down with Avid’s product designers to learn how things work, and also help them understand all of our workflows and needs.
It’s a delicate balance. We certainly don’t want to inflict change at the expense of the ecosystem surrounding filmmaking. But we need some serious updates to happen, and the Avid Customer Association has been lending us a good voice. 2015 will bring many long-time issues to the table. How long will Composer remain a viable option for craft editors? That’s up to all of us—inside and outside Avid’s walls. As a group of users, there are two things we need to do to keep our primary tool in operation:
- Join things like the Avid Customer Association (here). Join and be active in local user groups. Go to Avid Connect. Through these we can have a louder collective voice to keep helping Avid adapt itself to our ever-changing needs
- Give constant feedback in highly viewed places like the Avid Community’s Feature Requests forum (here). It’s also important to go to the Avid Community often. Ask lots of questions, and when we see someone else having trouble, give them a hand.
Once those are done, Avid can be in a position to spend its development dollars more effectively. The more educated they are to our priorities, the faster they can accommodate them.
And Finally… The Passion of a Craft Editor
Few things employ humans more than the term, “What if.” In science, “What if” presents an impossibility that is waiting to be conquered. In filmmaking, “What if” has created every movie ever made and every TV show ever broadcast.
But the curiosity behind “What if” only gets us half of the way. Let’s look again at our original idea—of one editor in a room, madly pursuing an idea. Why “madly”? What is it that makes us pursue things “madly”?
Regret is the most powerful magic a craft editor can possess. Regret for not finishing a project on time. Regret for creating a finished film that flops. Regret for standing in the back of the theater on every opening night and never creating a standing ovation. Regret for always getting nominated for an Emmy but never winning one. Regret for not being called back. Regret for making something we ourselves would never want to watch again. And worst of all, regret for letting ourselves get too technical and abandoning our story.
We all have suffered crushing regret, and we all refuse to feel it again. So we come in early. We leave late. Even when the project is nearly done, we watch it again and again. We turn off the volume to see… is it carrying itself visually? We look away from the screen to listen… is the story clear and seamless like a radio program? We make seventy versions of it, and throw them all away. Is it working? We screen it for strangers. Is it working? We scribble on our script. We write and we rewrite. Is it working?
But this isn’t a neurotic condition that should be looked at negatively. At the core of all craft editors is a type of insanity—one that makes combating this regret absolutely fun. It is the art of perfection, and the perfection of art. It is the difference between doing something and doing something really well.
Craft editing is foster parenting someone’s idea into a fully-grown film. It is an incredible exercise in trust. It is for responsible, thoughtful people who need to create rather than destroy. In a world that cuts itself apart, we cut things together. And in order to keep it fun, we dive blindly off the path into the tall weeds to make a new path. Craft editing is a challenge, and we must never get to a point where we are above the challenge.
So no matter what technology may bring, we must be focused on the story. We must think like one person in a room, madly pursuing an idea. It’s the only thing that has ever worked.
PS – Please disagree with me. Please post your thoughts and your workflows. We thrive on different ideas and conflicts. Don’t let me be the only one talking. We need to hear from you.