Always Renting

1 02 2013

Just the other day, I got word that my wife and I will have to be moving again from our house. We’re renters (something I’ve stupidly held on to since my days in New York — where it seems everybody rents) and when we moved into our new house two years ago, we settled on a two year lease. We knew our landlord could raise the rent big time (not a good thing for a teacher), or sell the house.

In short, we’ve known every day that we’ve been in our house that we might have to move — sooner rather than later.

As I thought about this it occurred to me that this sense of never getting comfortable in this place was very familiar to me. It’s the world that most of us live in, as freelancers. And, to a larger degree, it is the feeling that all of us should have before we get comfortable with any technology or workflow. We are simply renting here, and the chances are great that our jobs are going to end and the technology will evolve before we are really prepared for it.

In that way, the best thing that we can do in our business is to get used to the idea that things will be constantly changing.

I can say this because I spent my entire life, before coming to USC’s film school, as a freelancer. My average job ran about nine or ten months (HAIR and THE COTTON CLUB went on for 18 months, but those were real rarities). When I took a job, I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew that my life was going to be made up of simultaneously working and looking for work. On top of that, early on I knew that the skills I was learning as an assistant editor would be only slightly helpful when I moved up to being an editor.

You not only have to get used to that, you have to embrace that.

Today, of course, it’s even more prevalent. My wife, who is a career advisor and counselor and has helped many people who are in transition or crisis, told me 15 years ago that the typical worker in the 21st century would not only change jobs frequently, but change careers several times in his or her lifetime.

I thought about this the other day as I was doing an interview regarding the software that we use in our editing curriculum at USC. Who knows if Avid or Final Cut or Premiere is even going to be with us in five years? The only thing I know is that, if they are and if we are still using them, they will be doing different things and look and work differently than they do now. Otherwise, they surely Will Be Gone. A mere two years ago, the concept of a DIT must have seemed weird and alien to most on-set personnel. Now those job are evolving every month and the phrase “The DIT is asking for an umbrella” no longer elicits odd looks on set.

In a webinar that I did for Moviola, I said that one of the jobs of most people in our industry is R&D – research and personal development – and that we’ll have to spend around 1/4 of our weekly time unpaid teaching us new equipment, new workflows, new technology, new thought processes, etc. Those who won’t do that, and those who won’t do it until someone pays us to do it, are going to have the unfortunate job title of “Unemployed.”

Needless to say, this was not a popular statement, but it’s true. Sure, I can hide behind the fact that I can tell stories really well, but on the project I’m working on now, I’m creating an opening that requires that I know a set of plug-ins, and ways to manipulate images in new ways in order to get my storytelling ideas across. Those quick flashes to white are so 1980.

In that way, we are always renting our space on jobs and our currency. There are no editors today who can only know film. There are certainly no assistants who can get by without knowing sophisticated image manipulation techniques, server technology, codecs and compression details, etc. etc. etc. This is not a world where we can buy a plot of land, erect a house and never repair the boiler.

We are always renting, and I mean that in a good way.

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Apple and the App Store – Duck!!

16 12 2010

Bottom of New Delhi statueThe more observant readers of the blog will notice that I’ve been absent for a while from posting on the blog. I’ve been travelling during much of that time — in particular a great month-long trip to India. While there I learned a tremendous amount about the Indian economy and its media industry (while also eating a wonderful amount of wonderful food, but that’s another story) and I will be writing about it relatively soon.

But I also had a chance to mull over the Apple announcement from late October. You may remember that announcement for its announcement of the Air, and the hints about the new Mac OS – Lion. They also announced an App Store for Mac applications — to great whoops of joy among Mac pundits. I’ve given it a lot of thought and I’m not thrilled — I’m more scared than anything. And I’m scared for the media creation community.

First, if you aren’t already familiar with the store, head on over to its holding page on the Apple site, where you’ll get a very short sales pitch for why the store is so great. The site itself is due January 6, 2011 and Apple CEO Steve Jobs was quoted in a MacNN story telling us why the store is so great.

“The App Store revolutionized mobile apps,” reads a prepared statement from CEO Steve Jobs. “We hope to do the same for PC apps with the Mac App Store by making finding and buying PC apps easy and fun. We can’t wait to get started on January 6.”

But the devil is always in the details or, in this case, in the reality, and I think we should all be worried.

First off, I’m going to remind everyone that one of the major complaints about the iPhone/iPod (iOS)  App Store as been its approval process. Some developers have withdrawn their apps from the store because of the capricious nature of that process. And while it is true that Apple won’t (for now) require that all apps for the Mac be downloaded through their store, it will most probably become the de facto standard for 90% of all users.

Apple will be taking 30% of all revenues, which is way better for developers than what a brick and mortar retail store would take, but totally blows compared to the percentage that an online store would take. Apple will provide the entire store infrastructure — including billing and download, which is way better for smaller developers than building their own store, but no big deal compared to a scheme like Kagi or PayPal. Apple won’t do anything for marketing except (if the iOS store is any indication) some staff recommendations. That is no different than what software developers deal with today, and is way better if you’re one of the apps selected as a Staff Pick. But it totally blows if you’ve got a good competing product to that Staff Pick. Not much different than competing for reviews right now, except that these reviews/picks will appear on a retail store.

Paramount Consent Decree anyone?

So, in many cases, you gets some and you lose some.

The biggest argument for this store that I’ve heard made is that it will exactly serve the needs of 90-95% of the average Mom and Pop Mac purchasers, who don’t want to type “Family Tree” into their Google or Amazon search bars, and wait for the delivery of the disk by their friendly UPS guy. Now they can type it into the MacOS App Store search bar and get the download immediately. And that’s completely true. For 90% of the total market, this store will probably serve all of their needs.

But nearly every media maker that I know doesn’t fit in that 90-95%. We live in the outlying 5-10%.

As an example, we know that Apple makes Final Cut Suite. We also know that there at least two competing NLEs — Avid’s Media Composer and Adobe’s Premier Pro — that compete directly with Apple’s software. There’s also the new Lightworks Open Source beta (not available for the Mac right now, but “someday”) and a few other NLEs. I’d be fascinated to see if Apple approves any one of those competitors for inclusion in the store. And, if so, how often they would get Staff Pick recommendations.

The fact that Adobe and Avid could and would continue to sell their products on their own sites and elsewhere is great and all, but that has increasingly less power, the stronger the MacOS App Store’s pull on the overall market becomes. I can see the day when it will be well nigh impossible to start a new product without its inclusion in the Apple App Store and, once again, we (as users) become captive to the Apple selection process.

============= ADDED 12-16-2010 ===================

Philip Hodgetts points out in his comment below that Apple’s rules for the store prohibit software that uses installers to be sold in the OS Store. This rules out Final Cut, Media Composer and a slew of other complex applications.

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Apple, on its own site, touts the ability to download updates.

Developers are always improving their apps. That’s why the Mac App Store keeps track of your apps and tells you when updates are available. Update one app at a time or all of them at once, and you’ll always have the latest versions.

All well and good and I’d be thrilled at this feature were it not for two huge points. First, nearly every application that I own (with the shocking exception of Avid’s Media Composer) will, if I ask it to, automatically check for updates and let me update automatically. And, second, I’ve heard enough stories about iOS app updates being delayed for weeks as they go through the Apple approval process. Personally, I’d rather update on the developers’ and my own schedules, not on a store’s — even if that store is operated by may favorite computer manufacturer.

Finally, for everyone who has ever been thankful for a 30 day trial period, let me tell you that on the new MacOS Store — you won’t have one. Apple is not allowing downloading of apps with trial periods. You download it, you pay for it. Simple policy for them, not so much for us. I often download plug-ins or conversion tools for trials so I can decide whether to buy them or not. I love experimenting with them, but not too many of my clients want to see “SAMPLE” or “TRIAL VERSION” splashed across their screens. So, if I use them, I pay for them. If I don’t find them useful, I delete them. No harm, no foul, no fowl. On the new app store — we get harm and foul. I cry “chicken!”

Those of us who live in the crazy 5-10% outlier group will have to continue to do what we’ve always been doing — use friends, Twitter, user groups, blog posts and reviews — to find software that helps me to do my job better. Luckily, that won’t go away — except in the case of marginal software companies who can’t afford to part with 30% of their revenue, as well as keep a functioning web site up for support and marketing. This strikes me as a no-win situation for small developers and I’d be interested to hear what someone like Philip Hodgetts thinks. Philip, along with his partner Greg Clarke, publishes some great tools for Final Cut Pro over at their company Intelligent Assistance, has his own online store to sell their many apps. I’d also be interested in what some slightly larger companies think — not larger to the degree of  Adobe, who can pretty well afford their own store, but places like GenArts or Boris, both of whom make great plug-ins.

Small companies, like Apple used to be, need more open markets. I question whether this new Apple OS Store, will create anything resembling an open marketplace. If not, small companies are going to start hurting even more than they do now. And while Mom and Pop won’t notice, those of us who work creating content at increasingly lower and lower margins are going to start suffering.

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How Can Filmmakers Avoid The Music Industry Debacle?

21 10 2010

I had an interesting conversation with a few editors a week or so ago. As is our wont, we were complaining about Things In The Industry — shorter schedules, lower budgets, having to do color, VFX and sound work in the editing room to a much greater degree than ever before. Then I brought up my favorite New Thing.

The film that I’m supposed to start working on soon was shot on the Canon 7DMkII.  No big deal there. It wouldn’t surprise me if more than half of you are working with HDSLRs right now. But what disheartening to these editors is that I was working long distance — the producer and director are in different cities on the East Coast of the US, and I’m sitting here in my lonely little office in the city of Angels (Hollywood in California).

Now, I’ve talked about this before.  I like working this way. It enables me to work with people who I could never work with otherwise. It allows me to work more on my schedule (on weekends and evenings, when I’m not teaching) which, in turn, means that I can charge a bit less for my editing.

You would have thought that i was preparing to kill these editors’ first born children. I was accused of devaluing the concept of face-to-face interaction (I wasn’t. That’s always preferable, but that would never have happened on these types of projects.) and of lowering pay scales for all editors. These editors aren’t Old Fogey Types, by the way. They are very happy to try out the latest technology, leapt into the digital editing world, and continue to stay active. They know one plug-in from another.

But I couldn’t help but think of the music industry’s demise after I thought through this conversation. Not too long ago, digital visionaries like Michael Robertson (at mp3.com) and Sean Fanning and Sean Parker (at Napster) used the digital technology that was becoming available in the music industry to change the distribution model of music. All of a sudden, it was much easier to copy music at high quality than ever before. That made it easier, of course, to copy and give music to your friends, or to download it for free off of the Net.

Music distribution exploded (though much of it was free music, I’d venture a guess that more music was distributed through ICQ and peer-to-peer than had been distributed through the Big Music Companies the year before. That is a distribution explosion.

The record industry’s reaction was slow in coming but when it finally did, it took the tack of lots of lawyers in suits (both the clothing kind and the legal kind). The first round of suits were filed in September of 2003 and reached their peak in 2005, when nearly 6000 suits were filed (according to this article in Wired). Though the RIAA, which is the trade association representing the Big Four music companies and the source of the lawsuits, has since backed off on suing individuals, I can’t say that I’ve noticed any appreciable affect on music downloading. In fact, the biggest effect of the lawsuits has been to alienate RIAA’s users (that is, music listeners and consumers) from the music of the major labels.

Rather than take the opportunity to change the way they did business, the RIAA spent tons of time and money investigating new and pricey DRM strategies. It’s only recently, with the arrival of digital “lockers” and the music industry’s dreaded nemesis — Apple and their iTunes product — that many listeners have started to see the value of legal music. In some ways, it’s easier to listen to Pandora, a semi-curated music service, not unlike a radio station on steroids, and purchase just the songs that you want, than it is to troll on peer-to-peer BirTorrent-y sites.

But even more importantly, the music industry has started to move away from the idea that their sole income needs to be from selling bits and bytes of music (or pieces of plastic, to be old fashioned). It’s in booking concerts, supplying music to other areas like film, television, ringtones, etc. (for awhile, the Universal Music Publishing Group — where I worked about ten years ago in Web Development — was a better earner for Universal than the label business). In short, it’s in the many things outside of what they thought their business was.

Film production and post-production is at the same crossroads, in a smaller way.  The hardest places to be right now, are in high-end post production finishing houses. What used to be a $600/hour business can now be done by a talented person at one-sixth of that price. And while you may not want to finish your 100 million dollar feature in someone’s garage on Color, there are more web, corporate and wedding/event videos out there that never leave their editor’s workstations. Low budget films are shooting HDSLR and editing and finishing using Avid, Apple or Adobe software, right in their editor’s living rooms.

I am not advocating that every editor needs to do all of this.  My wife thinks I’m color blind, so a producer would be a moron asking to do final color correction. But if you’re a talented editor with story and can do color correction, that would be attractive to many people at the edge of their budgets (and who isn’t, truthfully?).

The very things that we editors were complaining about (shorter schedules, lower budgets, having to do color, VFX and sound work in the editing room) are the realities of our world today. And that includes lower salaries. The days of editors making $15,000 a week, and doing very little except story structure are G-O-N-E.  Except for one or two superstars, the highest paid editors will be the ones who bring the most value to the storytelling process, and that includes the ability to work faster, with more tools and at lower budget ranges. Most producers would rather pay an editor $2000 more, if they know that they won’t have to hire a person to do temp VFX and color correction and a music editor and a temp sound editor. I read that some of the simpler VFX shots in THE SOCIAL NETWORK were done by Angus Wall’s and Kirk Baxter’s assistants using Adobe After Effects. Think about that. The amount of money and time saved here must have been substantial. In addition, it means that the editors could see the results of their creative thought processes much faster than if they had to send everything out to a VFX house.

So, what’s my point?

The world of editing is at the brink, like the music business was a decade ago. Technology has changed how we can do things. We can choose to embrace a selected subset of that technology (“I’m going to accept audio filters, but ignore color correction.”) like the music industry did (“We’re going to embrace digital production because it’s cheaper, but not digital distribution.”). And we’ll all end up standing outside the local supermarker begging for people to drop quarters into the spiffy coffee mugs that we got for free when we used to work at that spiffy post production house that went out of business.

The biggest favor we can do for ourselves — and this applies to production as well as to post — is to admit that we don’t know where our world is going to end up. And that we need to be as open as possible to changing our own business model, give up our second homes (well, I don’t have a second home, but never mind that) and our extra cars, and hunker down for the ride. It is going to be very worthwhile in the end if we do.

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Learning From Experts, Part 2

8 10 2010

Last post, I talked about how I learned about learning from the late Arthur Penn, on the film FOUR FRIENDS. This time I’m going to talk about another, more traditional, type of learning — book learning.

Many of you know that I’m an editor and editing teacher by trade. I’ve been editing using digital NLEs (first on Lightworks, then on Montage, Ediflex, Avid and Final Cut) for years and years. In all that time, you’d think I would have learned things.  Well, actually, I have. But then you always meet people who help to keep your ego in check.

A few years ago, I joined up with a group of amazing top-notch editors in an Advisory Group which gave advice on software, strategy and other feedback to a major NLE manufacturer. And earlier this year I started doing a videocast called 2 REEL GUYS with another top-notch expert on another major NLE. Within a few meetings, it was clear to me just how little I really knew about the Avid Media Composer and Final Cut Studio. Now, fortunately, both of them have published books that help me to get schooled (in both senses of that word) in both systems.

Steve Cohen is an Avid Guru, in my mind. He’s been editing on the Avid since 1993′s LOST IN YONKERS which according to IMDb, was the first studio feature ever cut with an Avid. He’s worked as a consultant for them as well and some of our favorite parts of that NLE come straight from his brain. If there is a working editor today who knows more about the hidden parts of that system, I don’t know who it would be.

Years ago, Steve co-wrote a book on tips and tricks using the Avid, which (self-published) became an underground classic. A little while ago he decided that the time had come to come out with a new book for the very new system that Media Composer is today and I’m thrilled to say that it’s now here. Avid Agility: Working Faster and More Intuitively with Avid Media Composer, also self-published, came out last month and I’ve just finished going through it.  It is an amazing work — for both new and old Media Composer users. Sensibly organized into editing functions — Basic Editing, Timeline, Audio, Effects and much much more — it has taught me tips and tricks that I didn’t know. It’s not meant to be an absolute basic book (for that I like Sam Kauffman’s book Avid Editing) though I think that beginners would get huge value from it, because it does go into basic Avid functions.

For me, the huge value of the book comes from the complexity of any piece of software. There are many editors who are using Avid today in much the same way that they did ten years ago — even though there is now so much more in the program that would help them work. It’s the same thing with Microsoft Word, on which I’ve written several books but continues to blow me away with what is buried deep inside menus. Unless you spend a ton of time keeping up with your software, you’d never learn so much of what’s new and valuable in it.

“Avid Agility” does just that.  It takes me by the shoulders, shakes me several times and shouts — “Hey dummy!  Why are you stepping into an effect that way when you could do it so much easier this way.” I’d recommend that each and every one of you who are editors — whether you are on Avid, Adobe or Apple, rush up to that link above and order the book.

So, now, you’re thinking. Ah, why isn’t there something like that for Final Cut? There are a ton of great books teaching me how to use Final Cut Suite, but nothing that really digs into secret and great tips and tricks.

Ah, you’d say that, but you’d be wrong.

Larry Jordan is one of the more tirelessly hard-working gurus for Final Cut Pro. He has written about 10 gazillion books, is the Pilot behind the essential weekly audio podcast for digital video professionals, The Digital Production Buzz, and co-hosts our videocast, 2 Reel Guys, which is designed to help you understand how to tell better stories on film and video.

He has now published what, to my mind, could become the definitive cheat sheet book on Final Cut Pro, called Final Cut Pro Power Skills: Work Faster and Smarter in Final Cut Pro 7. Impressively presented, and incredibly detailed, this book spends its 264 pages giving you about one tip per page with things that should have been obvious to me about five years ago, but weren’t. Just like Steve Cohen’s book, Larry’s book divides itself into smartly designed chunks, designed to explore areas like Audio, Transitions and Effects, Video Formats, Editing and much much more.

It has a ton of those “Oh My God, I’m Such An Idiot” moments where it tells you an easier way of boosting audio levels, or clearing settings from a group of clips. These are things that you would have thought I’d have known already but, frankly, it’s way too hard to keep all of those new things in my head, while also trying to edit something.

Larry has done us all a great service by collecting these hundreds of tips to (as the book’s title says) work “faster and smarter” and I, for one, am glad he’s done that. Go right ahead and click the link or the picture above and learn a ton of stuff.

In fact, if you’re a working editor or would like to be a working editor, I’d go ahead and click on both of these links. In the entire filmmaking world today, you have to keep learning or, as Woody Allen said in ANNIE HALL, you’ll have a “dead shark.”

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Keeping Organized – A Free Webinar

8 09 2010

One of the things that many low budget productions suffer from, as well as nearly all student films, is a lack of organization. It makes those tougher films even harder, but no one ever feels they have the time to set up their systems.

This is crazy shortsightedness and to give a few examples of what I mean by organization, I’m going to take some examples from my book, THE FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK, 4th Edition, and present them (in my usual rambling fashion) during a webinar being given by the good folks over at New Media Webinars.

Every editor does things differently, and Shane Ross has done a pretty good DVD on the subject within Final Cut Pro. I’m going to toss my own thoughts into the ring  tomorrow, Thursday, September 9, 2010 at 10am Pacific time.

There are some good things about this webinar — the first is that it’s free, if you can make it at that time (NMW will be making the webinar available for a fee afterwards, along with some added content — a video where I’ll talk about organizing a VFX  workflow, as well as a copy of the glossary from my book). You’ll also get a chance to win some prizes, always a good thing.

Finally, I think that you’ll learn some things and, if you haven’t, you’ll have a chance to ask questions.

It should be a blast.  And you don’t even have to be in LA to see it.  So, c’mon down.  Just click on the link below.

Editing Bootcamp. Get Organized!!

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Looking For Mr. GoodEditor

16 08 2010

Every year, around this time, I get a booklet from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), called “Rules”.  For those of you who wonder just what that AMPAS thing is, let me tell you that it’s the organization that hands out the Oscars every year, and I’ve been a member of the Music Branch ever since I was a music editor lo those many years ago.

Anyway, AMPAS is a rather large and rules-ridden organization that bends over backwards to be fair in its judging of the Academy Awards (which, by the way, is only a small part of what it does — though that is the most income producing part).  My guess is that has something to do with the organization’s history as an invention of the studios. But, now, the main thing that determines which films get nominated for Oscars is usually the result of its members personal tastes.  Nothing more.

[As an aside, I'm thoroughly amused when film critics, bloggers or general conspiracy nuts, tend to create theories about just why certain movies did well or did poorly around the Oscar nominations. I'm IN the organization, and if there is a conspiracy to award certain films awards, I've never gotten the memo.]

In order to assure whatever level of impartiality you can get in what is essentially a vote on your own personal tastes, the Academy annually issues this thick (4o page) rulebook.  The rules are relatively innocuous.  Here is one from “Rule Thirteen, Special Rules for the Film Editing Award”:

In accordance with Rule Two Paragraph 5, only film editors who hold principal position credit(s) shall be considered eligible for the Film Editing award.

Pretty controversial, eh?

But this raises the real question for us as to just what constitutes best film editing.

Note that the award is called “Best Film Editing” not “Best Film Editor.”  That’s a crucial difference for me. Editing is truly collaborative, so it’s not really possible to say who made the editorial decisions that result in the film that we see. The editor/s accept this award as representatives for the film’s editing, but there is no editor is the world who would claim that they do all of the decision-making, much though some would want to. So, every year the Editing Branch gets to nominate the five films that they think are best edited, regardless of who edited them. And then the rest of us vote on them.

But how do we choose the films that we think are the best edited?

I’ve long felt that the only real way to give the award would be to make every voter watch all of the dailies* for the film. Honestly, if someone doesn’t know that all we had to work with for a scene were two master shots, how can they understand why we made the choices we did.

Obviously, that’s neither possible nor desirable. Ultimately, it is only the end result that matters.

So, what is “Best Editing”?  In my opinion, it revolves around the following four points, presented here in no particular order:

  • Do we understand and get involved with the story?
  • Do we understand and get involved with the characters?
  • Do we understand and get involved with the ways in which the characters and the story change as the film moves along?
  • Is the film told in the best possible way for its story and its characters?

That’s it.  Seems simple, right? Of course, it’s not. The last point is impossible to know but that is where the individual judgement comes in.  A few years, I loved THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, an intelligently shaped story about a man’s struggle to communicate after a devastating stroke.

Many of my friends felt that it was overly maudlin and a depressing topic.

So, we’re all operating from our own prejudices here. But I felt that, given its subject matter, the film created wonderful ways of reaching inside the lead character and letting the audience understand and get involved in his plight. Its filmmaking changed from claustrophic to more expansive as his world expanded, so it felt that it was told in “the right way.” And I got inside his mind and his story.

Perfect (for me).

Filmmaking is all about shaping story and character (I better believe that — that’s what my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT is all about, how to shape storytelling across all facets of the filmmaking crafts). Film editing is a crucial component in that. So, when I sit down with my final ballot for the Oscars every year, those four questions always rise to the top. And, by the way, they are also four of the five questions that I constantly ask myself as I edit. The first one is “What is this story about?”

But that is another story entirely.  And another post.

==================================

* Dailes, also called “rushes,” is the term for all of the footage that was shot during the production phase of the filmmaking process.

(This post is adapted from an earlier post on another blog)
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Collaboration and Why The Auteur Theory Is Bull

10 08 2010

I’m going to admit right here at the outset that I know that I’m distorting the “auteur theory” here, but I’m just doing what most people think that theory says. Ask anyone, even our amazing film students at USC, what the “auteur” theory is, and they’ll tell you that it’s about the supremacy of the director in terms of guiding the vision of a film.

In fact, as I understand it, the auteur theory really says something much more interesting – that, over the course of a number of films, a good director imbues each film (no matter how different) with a recognizable point of view. The difference between an auteur and a journeyman director — common in Hollywood in the Sixties when that French theory came to prominence — is that each film of an auteur becomes inextricably intertwined with that director’s style, vision and personality. A “work-for-hire” director has no such distinctive stamp. In that theory, Michael Bay is as much an auteur as John Ford.

So, the auteur theory really talks about subtleties that are much more visible in retrospect. To some degree, they can’t be consciously added in at the outset. Yet, this theory has somehow become the torch by with which less talented directors tend to destroy their films, as they consciously attempt to force their “personal vision” onto each of their films.

That’s what I understand about the auteur theory. But now I’ll ignore that knowledge go with the second definition – that it’s about the directing imposing a vision on a work.

That auteur theory is bull.

These thoughts were raised by a question that someone asked me on Twitter a little while ago: “How do you deal with a director who has incredibly idiotic ideas?” the questioner asked. Implicit in that question was a second one: “And what do you do when that director forces those dumbnesses onto you?”

I’d like to address that question by looking at it from another angle.

Jeannette Catsoulis New York Times review of Robert Rodriguez’s film SHORTS is Exhibit Number One for me. This is a film in which a number of children live and learn in a town whose main company, Black Box Industries, manufactures one product – the Black Box – which she describes as “a strange, multipurpose gadget that resembles an ebony Rubk’s Cube and can serve as everything form a cheese grater to a solar panel.”

Catsoulis, who didn’t much like the film, boes one to say:

“Concocted by Robert Rodriguez, a kind of filmmaking Black Box (he wrote, directed, edited, produced, photographed, composed some of the music and supervised the visual effects), “Shorts” feels underwritten and overdressed.”

Aside from the fact that I have never particularly liked most of Rodriguez’s films (most of which seem to me to suffer from a love of technique and use shortcuts to character), it seems to me that Catsoulis is accusing the director here of falling in love with his own voice and his own work. It’s an Emperor’s New Clothes sort of story, in which no one wants to tell the King that he’s nearly naked.

[As an aside, Manohla Dargis -- in the same paper -- off-handedly (and quite nastily, I thought) makes a similar claim on Quentin Tarentino’s last film, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, when she says:

“He has also turned into a bad editor of his own material (his nominal editor, as usual, is Sally Menke,” a comment which manages to insult both the film and a fine editor at the same time (Menke’s been doing this long enough, and worked with enough people, to not take a job if she knows she is going to be treated like a mere pair of hands)]

Directors, listen to me hear — it’s impossible to make a film by yourself. Not every idea you’re going to have is good, and not all good ideas are going to come from you. The best comments I’ve gotten from directors are when they turn to me after viewing my Editor’s Cut and say “Wow, there were some things in there that I never would have thought of myself. Thanks.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to use those ideas, but it does mean that the director’s creative juices are going to be kicked up a notch and there will new and better ideas flowing very shortly.

And that is the ideal way to work with any creative person: come to the table with an idea (the “thesis”), let that person come up with a different idea (the “antithesis”) and then to let those two opposing notions contribute to a third, usually better, idea (the “synthesis”). Directors who feel that they are the sole auteurs of their work, and are too afraid or guarded to open up to other ideas, will generally miss out on those “third, usually better” ideas, and their work will suffer. (I talk about this in the latest episode of the podcast that I do with Larry Jordan — 2 Reel Guys — in the episode on Collaboration.)

That’s why the more roles that a creator takes on, the more the work will usually suffer. Being a writer/director is dangerous enough. When you become a writer/director/editor the combination is almost always disastrous.  I’d venture that John Sayles solo films, for instance, were never as good as when he worked with an editor. Even the vaunted Coen Bros have suffered when they edited their own work.

It’s a problem that I’m continually fighting among those talented students at USC. I’d rather they learned how to talk to an editor to bring their ideas to the fore, than edit their film themselves. Simplifying the communication process, in this case by eliminating the editor, doesn’t make for a better film. Creating a common language (such as the one I talk about in my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT) does.

So, to get back to the Twitter question, “How do you deal with a director’s stupid ideas?”

In my opinion, the first thing to realize is that those ideas might not be stupid ideas at all. The fact that they seem stupid to you may say more about you than about the director. You might be jealousy guarding an idea of yours that you’d be better off questioning. Just as we want our directors to be collaborative, it is important for us (as editors) to be open to those “antithesis” ideas.

The second thing to realize is that, even if the ideas are stupid (“Can’t we take every other shot and turn it upside down?”), most directors who have done their homework are coming up with ideas because they are missing something. They aren’t getting the emotional kick from a scene that they wanted. They might not understand a character’s motivation the way that they feel is necessary. Or they might not feel tension or energy or humor. Or, there is more confusion by the end of a commercial than they desire.

The problems are myriad (haha, a very subtle HEATHERS reference there) but the psychology is the same. Unless the director is a complete moron, every idea and question that they have comes from some place. It is the job of the editor to dig below the question/comment and figure out what it is that the director (or producer or showrunner or whoever is in charge of the vision) really wants.

And the third thing is that if the director really is a complete moron, I’d take a look at yourself and ask why you took the job in the first place. I know that there’s always rent that you have to pay, but if that’s the deal that you’ve made with the devil, then you’ve got no business complaining about idiot directors. Life is too short to be working with people who don’t fill you up with artistic and/or emotional fulfillment.

(adapted from an old blog entry on another site)
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EditFest LA is coming and you can help me out

3 08 2010

This weekend — Friday and Saturday to be precise — a whole boatload of editors are going to meet in Los Angeles, at Universal Studios for a networking/learning/celebratory experience all focused around what we do.

That is, put images together to tell stories.

Some of the panelists this weekend include Ed Abroms, A.C.E. (The Sugarland Express, Blue Thunder), Matt Chessé, A.C.E. (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland), Sally Menke, A.C.E. (Ingourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction), Pam Wise, A.C.E. (Transamerica, The Dancemaker), Jerry Greenberg, A.C.E. (“The French Connection,” “Apocalypse Now”), and Carol Littleton, A.C.E. (“E.T: The Extra Terrestrial,” “Body Heat”). For those of you who attend (there is a fee, which is discounted for pretty much anyone who is a member of practically any editorial organization ever created) you’ll get to hear some amazing speakers as well as have lunch, cocktails and pizza — over the two days, not all at once — with some of the top practitioners in the business.  For those of you who come, it’s really a great opportunity and tickets are limited, so I’d hop on over to the American Cinema Editors home page and learn how to sign up.

But that’s only part of the reason why I’m writing today. I am asking you a favor.  I am moderating a panel titled THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, in which I’ve asked five amazingly diverse and talented editors to talk about a scene from a film that they did not edit but which inspired them in some way. (For a review of the New York version of this panel, where  Michael Berenbaum, A.C.E (Nurse Jackie!, 2009), Joe Klotz, A.C.E. (Junebug 2005), Andrew Mondshein, A.C.E. (Cold Souls, 2009) , Susan Morse, A.C.E. (Editor of Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986 and Manhattan, 1979) and Andrew Weisblum, A.C.E. (The Wrestler, 2008), just hop on over to the Kirsten Studio blog. It also talks about the other fantastic panels that were at EditFestNY.)

As I said, I’m having five really diverse editors on the panel.  They are:

  1. Zack Arnold (TV, feature and web video editor – “Burn Notice” and “The Bannen Way”)
  2. James Haygood, A.C.E. (feature and TV editor – TRON: LEGACY, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, PANIC ROOM and FIGHT CLUB)
  3. Joe Leonard (TV editor – “Glee”)
  4. Lisa Lassek (TV and Web editor – “Pushing Daisies” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”)
  5. Ken Schretzmann (feature editor – TOY STORY 3)

The films that they have chosen are THE CONVERSATION, RAISING ARIZONA, OUT OF SIGHT, MEMENTO and THE GRADUATE. So you can see just how diverse a group this is.

Now, here’s where the favor comes in. During the panel I’m going to be asking for questions for the panelists on Twitter from the audience. But I’d also like to go into the event with some of your questions. So, if there’s some burning questions that you’ve wanted to ask the creative brains behind the editing of features, television and web video, please add them in a comment below. I’ll try and work those questions into the panel on Saturday afternoon.  So even if you’re not there — you’ll be there.

Sort of like INCEPTION, eh?

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Working With New Muscle Memory

15 06 2010

The new release of Avid’s Media Composer 5.0 has a ton of little interface changes in it, some of which initially made me crazy as I continually had to remember what they were (Steve Cohen has a great tutorial up on his blip.tv page which is well worth a viewing).

This got me to thinking about how most filmmakers who I know have to develop a set of learned reactions in order to their job properly. As editors we learn the NLE tools when we’re first exposed to them (whether it’s Media Composer, FCP, Premier, After Effects or any software tool) and develop a muscle memory about how to best use those tools. Keyboard shortcuts are just the most obvious examples of these, but even something as simple as figuring the best way to create an overlap or L-cut, where picture and track are not edited at the same frame. (Naturally, Steve has a great tutorial on a trick for doing this at the end of a sequence). Over the course of time, we build up a repertoire of methods and techniques that help us to do our job more quickly and efficiently, allowing us to think more and do the mechanics less.

But, like annual releases of cars, every new release of a piece of software introduces new features and it’s way too easy to ignore them and simply continue doing our work in the Good Old Way. This means that the NLE that is released in 2010 is not the NLE that I learned on in, let’s say, 2007 (though, truth be told, I learned my NLEs waaaay earlier than that — don’t ask). But we’re probably still editing with it as if it’s 2007.

In one of the editors’ groups that I’m a member of, I’m continually amazed at how many of us didn’t know the feature that another one of us is using. The same goes for many of my students at USC — the way that they taught themselves FCP in high school is the way they’re using it today — even though it’s changed since FCP5.

The problem, in my mind, is muscle memory. Our brain and body have been trained to think and act in a certain way, and it is damned hard to get them to work in any other way. It’s not a trait peculiar to filmmakers, of course. People drive the same route to work every day, have the same eating habits as they did when the got out of college, and maintain many of the same traits — for better or for worse — as ten years ago. It’s why my mother still can’t text people and it’s why we all misspell or misuse the same words year in and year out.

But that muscle memory tends to get in the way all too often and one of the chief responsibilities of a good filmmaker today is to keep on disrupting that muscle memory. If we’ve figured out an efficient way of lighting for 35mm film, we may need to relearn the methods when we move to HD-DSLR. Every time I finish a job it feels like I have to relearn the tools all over again.

And that’s because we do.

A responsible filmmaker must spend way more time teaching him or herself new technologies, new interfaces, and new methods before, during and after every job. At this past weekend’s EditFestNY conference, the editors of AVATAR talked about how the production was literally inventing the technology as they went along. By its very necessity, they had to create new muscle memories all the time. Most of us are not so directly challenged in our daily work, and we rarely are given leave by our employers to experiment. Our jobs reward doing things in established ways. There’s very little room for learning new methods and the mistakes that generally come with that exploration.

But, to my mind, the way in which we thrive as filmmakers is to continually put those shortcuts and workflows aside periodically and asking ourselves what could be done differently. We need to go to user group meetings, read blogs and view videos, to force ourselves to see how others work.

It’s how we’re going to keep useful to new employers and excited by our work.

=============

Speaking of user groups, the geniuses at the Final Cut Pro User Group (notably Mike Horton and Dan Berube) are putting on the first ever Supermeet in Boston later this month — June 25th to be exact. There’s going to be some exciting presentations there, including some CS5 and Canon HD-DSLR workshops (remember what I said about muscle memory). and it’s only fifteen bucks!!

You should hustle on over to the supermeet.com website and learn more about the program and the details about it. Supermeets are always a bundle of fun and, if you live in the Northeast, you should wend your way to Boston on the 25th.

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The One NLE To Rule Them All

9 06 2010

No, no, no.  I  don’t think that there’s one editing platform that rules over everything.  And I never have felt that way. When I edited on film, there were debates as to whether a Moviola upright was superior to a flatbed (too noisy!!  too assistant intensive!!) and I used both.  And once people moved increasingly over to the flatbeds, there were debates as to whether the KEM or Steenbeck or Moviola was the best. And I used them all.

So, this argument about Final Cut and Avid tires me out.  I feel old.  I’ve been there and done that. And I use them both.

Avid's Media Composer 5.0But one thing that the imminent release of Avid Media Composer 5.0 (this Thursday, June 10th) brings to mind is just how much we want our editing machines to do exactly what we want them do. There is a tremendous amount to like in this great improvement to MC (as we cool and insufferable editors like to call it).  Personally, I love the new stereo tracks — which enable me to save great amounts of screen real estate and put keyframes and volume graphic moves on both channels of a stereo sound simultaneously. And I like how I can mix and match frame rates, raster sizes and a slew of other crazy stuff that I don’t really understand, right in my timeline without doing complicated conversions.  Oh, the conversions are still there, but now I don’t have to do them — MC does them  in the background for  me.

I’m lazy like that. And I don’t really understand it well enough to not be lazy.

But some of the coolest things in the new release are not really new, they’ve been in Final Cut for a while — editing directly in the timeline without switching back and  forth between Avid’s modes, for instance. Personally, I like the old trim mode in Media Composer, but if you’re used to dragging and dropping on the Final Cut timeline, this is going to seem very familiar to you.

Another thing that I really like in the new Media Composer is that I can edit directly in QuickTime, without conversion or transcoding to Avid Media files. Yeah, just like Final Cut does. I can also edit Red files directly, along with AVCHD and P2 and XDCamEX. But that QuickTime editing is great.

So, now (to a great degree) I can have some of what I like in Final Cut right inside Media Composer.

It gets even better.  Though I haven’t tested it yet (Boris!!  Are you listening??) Boris released a video today talking  about a new product that they’ve got coming out called Boris AAF Transfer. If this software lives up to its hype, it will make it very easy to edit a sequence in Final Cut and export the timeline to Media Composer and easily relink everything to the original media without complicated transcoding. In fact, with Avid’s QuickTime AMA (new in 5.0), you can simply link the transferred timeline back to the original FCP media and — voilá — you’ve got an Avid Media Composer project ready for editing, finishing, sound work or whatever you want to do.

For years, people have been doing a similar thing using Wes Plate’s awesome Automatic Duck, though it did take a few more contortions and is twice the price of Boris’s solution. Without testing Boris AAF Transfer it’s  impossible to know whether it can handle sequences of the complexity that Automatic Duck does. Wes’ plug-in has been so reliable for so long that it’s hard to imagine that Boris’ 1.0 version can come  close.

But Boris has been doing fantastic FX plug-ins for FCP and Avid (many of their effects come standard with the full version of Media Composer — sorry students) that it’s an exciting development. Often I go for their plug-ins over Apple’s or Avid’s.  So I am encouraged and hopeful.

And that leads me back to my original point. What I’ve observed over the years is not how different editing systems are, but how similar. When Avid was just starting, they looked over the shoulder of companies like Lightworks and saw that — holy splice mark Batman!! — you could actually edit in the timeline. And, lo and behold, trim mode was born. When Randy Ubillos, creator of the original Adobe Premiere, first created what would become Final Cut Pro, he was able to take a look at what both Premiere and Media Composer were doing wrong, think hard, and improve on them (Lightworks was, by then, a non-competitor). And now, with every release of each NLE, they’re looking at what their competitors are doing better than they are, and putting it into their own software.

No one knew they needed “select to the  right” until FCP introduced it. It is now in  MC (since 4.0 or thereabouts).

So, in my opinion, there is not “one NLE to rule them all.” The best NLE is  all of them together, especially when there are companies like Boris and Automatic Duck to build bridges between them. Especially when companies like Avid take a look at what Apple and Red and others are doing, and put it in their software. Especially when there are editors out there who keep on pushing those companies to create better and better NLEs.

[Don't even get me started on Get. Though not as cool as Avid's ScriptSync, it is so way cool that there were editors at a recent LAFCPUG meeting ready to throw down their hard-to-come-by-recession-dollars for a copy.]

What we want, when you really get down to it, are our favorite companies out there — Apple, Adobe, Avid, Sony, and a host of others — to keep running scared and looking at others who are doing  great innovation and trying to figure out how to do it themselves.

Then I can have one or two or three of them sitting on my Mac, and move effortlessly between them.  Then it won’t be the software that will rule, it will be the Mac sitting on my desk that will be the one true NLE to rule them all.

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