Editors Have Proof of Concept for Flexible Work Environments. Now What?

By in Media Management, Video Editing

The media and entertainment industry has the green light to restart production—but while there are still health risks, many remote video editing workflows will stay in place. The question is for how long, and which aspects of these flexible work environments will go on to become the industry’s new normal after lockdown ends.

Post-production and VFX companies were not required to close during quarantine. In fact, many in North America and Europe have continued to service existing orders through a combination of remote workflows and social distancing measures for finishing procedures, such as Dolby Atmos mixes that need to be performed on site.

Meanwhile, trade bodies like the UK Screen Alliance and the Motion Picture Editors Guild are providing guidelines for working safely, aiming to get the post sector back to the office to limit the expected fallout of widespread redundancies.

Todd Downing, ACE (Mrs. America), is looking forward to returning but feels understandably hesitant about what the new rules mean in practice. “I don’t think we are ready to be in enclosed spaces with others right now,” he says. “But I am optimistic that with all the scientists studying the virus we can figure out how to make that a reality soon.”

Even after it’s safe to return, though, the industry will still have confirmed that it can support remote production. “For a lot of people in the industry, this was not an obvious assumption,” says Michele Sciolette, CTO at Cinesite, in an interview for Creative Planet Network. “Today we know, with direct first-hand experience, that remote production is possible while maintaining a high level of productivity.” Cinesite supports studios in Vancouver, Montreal, London, and Germany.

This changing mindset seems to run along the chain from studio executives to finishing boutique. As the industry recalibrates, it’s opening up to the idea of shifting away from the former centralized model, where the production office and facility were the operating hubs for creative personnel, toward more flexible work environments.

“A hybrid model—where some aspects of production continue to be office-based while others are done remotely—would have a lot of advantages,” Sciolette said, in an interview continued on Cinesite’s site. “This would allow us to address the limitations we face with the current ‘all-remote’ setups while giving us the flexibility to scale up our teams beyond the constraints of our physical office space, as well as providing more flexibility to our team members and reducing our carbon footprint.”

In truth, the industry had already begun implementing hybrid architectures where media is held on-prem and/or in external data centers, and is accessible from a facility or remotely via cloud using PCoIP remote display tools. COVID-19 has fast-tracked the strategy to ensure a far greater degree of distributed work across workspaces going forward.

We have proved during COVID that remote offlines work, says Jai Cave, technical operations director at UK post facility Envy, in an interview for AV Magazine . Envy rolled out over 100 remote edit suites, and when this period is over, he envisions an increased demand for remote offline for specific projects where it solves a problem. However, a lot of editors, producers, and production managers will want to come back to a facility for the improved creative communication it brings, he says.

He predicts the growth of a blended solution that has editors and producers spend a few days of the week in a facility and work the rest of the week remotely if that suits them.

Sciolette believes that the winning formula will come from the flexibility to take the best of both worlds: stay remote when it’s convenient and meet in person when it’s necessary.

After all, remote video editing workflows present some challenges regardless of the technology in place. For instance, calibrating reference displays demands completing some aspects of production in a specific room. It’s hard to fully recreate every kind of person-to-person interaction virtually.

“In documentaries, more than any other genre, you are writing the story in the edit, and directors feel a loss of control if done remotely,” confirms Jack Jones, technical director at documentary specialist Roundtable. “Directors are keen to get back to the facility.”

Charlotte Layton, commercial director of The Farm Group, recognizes that going totally remote means giving up some key elements of collaboration. “The question is: How do we keep a sense of community? And how do you celebrate an emotional journey when everyone is disparate?” she says.

The producers of a recent broadcast project opted to meet at The Farm Group’s central London location (observing PPE protocols) at regular intervals under lockdown, according to Layton, “to feel more connected” to the work in progress.

“There is a huge benefit to having clients in a suite, however the amount of time they spend with creative talent may change,” says John Rogerson, CEO of London post house Halo. “Remote working is not a silver bullet and only makes sense when a client needs it.”

However, working separately until the very final grade or sign-off stages is convenient for production executives as well as DPs and editors, and it may become a fixture of the industry.

“If traveling to distant locations year after year is affecting your life in a negative way, we’ve now proven it unnecessary and perhaps inefficient,” says Roger Barton, ACE, who helped edit Paramount Pictures’ feature The Tomorrow War under lockdown.

“Personally, I find myself happy cutting at home,” Barton says. “I very much miss the camaraderie, but I’m more creative here with fewer distractions, and I’m probably working more hours than I ever have. I’m happy to do it because it’s on my own schedule, and that creates a balance that I enjoy. The flexibility to do so is one of the lessons I hope we walk away with.”

Barton acknowledges that this won’t be true for everyone. Some are calling on the industry to use the enforced break to put a check on some of its more draconian work practices. Zack Arnold, ACE (Cobra Kai), struck a chord with his argument that decried “the ridiculously long hours, the chronic sleep deprivation, the complete and utter lack of work-life balance, and the lives that are destroyed . . . by the perpetual content machine that is Hollywood” of pre-COVID normality. If ever there was a time to set boundaries and demand change, it’s now, he urged.

If nothing else, the crisis has proved the prudence of a business continuity policy centered on routing media to work-from-home locations. It may also have triggered a change in the way craftspeople work within the industry—some of which may be here for good.

“We’ve all been asking for more remote working and been told up until now that, for security reasons, this wasn’t possible. But now everyone can see just how much more convenient it can be,” says Cheryl Potter, who edited HBO drama The Nevers remotely. “Good luck getting that genie back in the bottle!”

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Adrian Pennington is a journalist, editor, commentator, and copywriter on film and TV production. Follow him on Twitter: @Pennington1.