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 Some developers have withdrawn their apps from the store because of the capricious nature of that process.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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2 10 2010

The death this week of Arthur Penn, the great film, theater and television director, brought back some memories. I worked as a music editor with him on three films – FOUR FRIENDS, TARGET and DEAD OF WINTER and felt him an amazing collaborator, along with his long-time sidekick Gene Lasko, and a gentle man.

One of the first things I learned from him, though, has very little to do with music, but everything to do with how films grow organically and how none of us can know everything.

Craig Wasson, Michael Huddleston and Jim Metzler from FOUR FRIENDS (Courtesy Festivalblog)

It was on the set of the film FOUR FRIENDS, which we shot in the Chicago area. One of the very first days of shooting was a night shoot in which the four high school friends, living in the mid-1960s, met in the middle of a suburban street, approaching each other from opposite sides of the street.

Arthur, who by this time had directed ten films (including the amazing works BONNIE AND CLYDE, ALICE’S RESTAURANT, MICKEY ONE, and THE MIRACLE WORKER), a few TV movies, and something like three dozen episodes of television shows, set up the first master shot so that it followed three of the characters as they danced down the street playing the New World, until they stopped — out of breath.

As the music editor on the film, one of my responsibilities on the film was to work with the four actors so they knew their musical parts (we were recording live, even though we would eventually replace the music in post) and could play it together. I watched as Arthur set up that first wide shot, and worked it until we got it done. We followed two of the characters down the street, as they played a bit from Dvorak’s New World Symphony on their instruments with the other two — who were off camera for most of the shot. Eventually, the camera (which was on Garrett Brown’s Steadicam) moved to the center of the street as the shot turned into a four shot, with the four friends playing to each other. (I should mention that Jodi Thelen’s character was named Georgia, and they all had a major crush on her in some way — hence the choice of the piece by screenwriter Steve Tesich).

After getting a good take on that first master shot, Arthur proceeded to line up the camera for the first piece of coverage. He and the d.p. (Oscar winner Ghislain Cloquet) walked around for a bit with their director’s viewfinders, setting up the shot until Arthur finally looked up and told the first assistant director, Cheryl Downey, that he had actually set up the first (Steadicam) shot incorrectly. Instead of ending up in the middle of the street pointing to the four characters, he really should have ended up with the camera on the sidewalk, pointing to the opposite side of the street for the characters’ four shot.

In other words, the shot we had spent forever setting up and getting would have to be redone.

Arthur looked around, apologized to the crew, and we all went out and prepped for the revised master shot.  Which we got in record time. Happily.

Now, the point that I’m making isn’t that even a director of Penn’s stature can make a mistake. We are all human, and we all can make mistakes. No, what I’m pointing out is that the genius of Arthur leading this crew and allowing himself the ability to discover the best filmmaking approach as the film develops.  Despite an amazing career, a great cinematographer, and a professional crew surrounding him, Arthur learned something about the scene and wasn’t afraid to take his lumps in front of the crew as he admitted it.

He learned as he shot. And that is an amazing ability. In my book THE FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK, I said it myself (I believe in the first or second edition). I have never had a job in which I didn’t learn something. When I get to the place where I stop learning, it’s time to quit.

There was another time when I found myself amazed at something that Arthur did on that film. We were shooting a scene in which a group of high school students, in an auditorium, stormed the stage during an Army recruiting speech, singing “Hit The Road Jack.” We were shooting coverage onto the audience and Arthur put the camera on a very short dolly track and as the students came up to the front of the stage he pushed in ever so slightly. It didn’t look like much on the stage where we were all standing behind the camera. In fact, it didn’t even look so impressive the next night when we all watched it in dailies.

But, several months later, when I saw the scene as editor Barry Malkin had cut it, as I was smoothing out the music for a screening, that short little dolly move took my breath away. Even on my tiny 35mm Moviola screen.

FOUR FRIENDS came and went relatively quickly, but I learned several things about learning from Arthur Penn on that movie — I learned to question my own assumptions — that shot that I was sure wasn’t that impressive turned out to be just right. And I also learned how to act when something I learned changed my thinking in front of my collaborators. It’s never too late to learn, I learned. It’s only when we stop learning that it comes “too late.”

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Labor Day, Unions and Me

15 09 2010

It was Labor Day in the United States a few Mondays ago and this seems like a natural time for me to talk about what film unions have done in the scope of my career.

I remember, one day when I was working as an assistant editor on a documentary that was struggling to meet a crazy and imminent deadline, its producer pulled me aside and complained that the overtime pay that I was going to make working that weekend was going to make it difficult for his company to turn a profit on the program. Now, let’s leave aside the reality that he was probably making about 25 times what I was making on the film. And let’s also leave aside the reality that I didn’t create his schedule or his lateness with “locking the picture” (this means finishing the editing so you can hand it over to the sound editing team and the composer).

Nope, what galled me about his attitude was that he felt that he had every right to suck away my weekend so that he could finish his film. Without so much as a thank you.

Late nights, weekend work, and crazed deadlines are (unfortunately) a reality in the film business. There never seems to be enough money to do a film right, until there’s not enough time to do it at all. And then all of the stops are pulled out — mixing stages are kept open on Saturday and Sundays, extra visual effects teams are added, and more studio executives tend to show up at all hours to “help solve problems.”

So I’m not complaining about the hours and the overtime. That’s just a part of life.

What I do object to — then and now — is that this producer felt that we should be invested enough in that film to add extra work into the project without any extra compensation whatsoever.  It wasn’t in my original contract discussions with him, and it had never occurred to him to mention it until the day before that weekend.

On that film, however, we had a union contract and I was able to tell him — “If you want to take away my weekend, you can. But that’s why the extra overtime pay is called ‘penalty time.’”  On a film without a contract, I wouldn’t have been so lucky.

I’m not blind.  I know that large unions can become as oppressive as large companies. I also have heard the cliché of on-set regulations so restrictive that tables couldn’t be moved because the crew was waiting for a grip to come back from the bathroom.  I’ve heard about those situations, but I’ve never actually been on a film like that. But I’m sure they exist — on very rare occasions. On most sets, everybody takes pride in pitching in to help — so long as it doesn’t take away from their own job (which is a very crucial distinction to anyone trying to make a deadline).

But I know that the constant struggle between those who get paid and those who pay us is often won by the people with the most clout, and that is rarely the workers. Most of us are normal people who are trying to make enough money to support families and take them out to eat once every few weeks or so. (There’s actually a great blog, written by a woman who writes under the pen name Peggy Archer, called Totally Unauthorized, which documents her life  as a set lighting technician, and it’s a great read for everyone who thinks that filmmaking is all about glamour and lush parties.) If we often feel that we could use some help, every now and then, at getting a tiny bit more leverage in that struggle, who can blame us?

So, I’ve always been a fan of unions, even when they get too excessive. There are people on both coasts who felt a few years ago, for instance, that the Screen Actors Guild has gotten entirely too caught up in its own politics to see the overall industry picture. They feel that SAG would rather bring everyone else in the industry down with them, in order to make their own points. Frankly, I am not one of those people, but that’s not really my point at all. My point is that the excesses of a union are usually a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the excesses of the studios.

So, on this Labor Day weekend, it’s helpful to remember that film unions are neither pro-film or anti-film. They were formed originally to be pro-people-who-work-in-film.

For all of you who want to be good editors and good filmmakers, we want to ally ourselves with good producers, good studio people and good and healthy business practices. And, sometimes, a little help from our unions is vastly appreciated.

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One side note here and it’s going to be a bit of a rant.  My apologies. If ranting is too much for you today, please skip the rest of this post and return next time.  Please.

On every film that I’ve worked on, I got completely involved and treated the film as if it was my own.  I got invested in more than just the editing of the film, but its very creation.  So, I’m not stepping back from involvement in a film. But the reality is that those films were never my films! There is no way that I could possibly reap the benefits of the great successes in the same emotional ownership way as the producer, director, writer and actors. I was as much a part of the filmmaking process as most of them, but they weren’t my films.

It’s always amused me that the producers or directors on the lowest budgeted films, were often the ones who expected every single person on the film to give as much sweat, blood and overtime as they did. And while I’ve seen them thank their editors, cinematographers, production designers etc. at the premieres, I never saw them hand them an equal amount of credit as they took for themselves (justifiably, by the way — they were usually there for years before a single frame rolled through the film cameras).

I understand why it’s difficult for them to believe that not everyone thinks that their films are the most incredible working and creative opportunity, but it just ain’t so.  We need our directors and producers to be the most passionate members of the team. They lead us. But the other side of the coin for this is that our desire to head home to our families might be a little stronger than theirs at the end of every day.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t give 150%. It just means that we can’t give the 1,000% that they are expected (and want) to give.

And that’s why having a union to protect us from that 1,000% level of commitment is a great thing for the Rest of Us.

Rant over.  We now return you to your lives, which are already in progress.

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Oh, okay, I lied.  One more note.

After I finished the above entry, I was surfing around the Web (Hmmm, “surfing”.  Does anyone say that anymore?) and I reading Peggy Archer’s blog I was talking about above, “Totally Unauthorized.” She has a rather depressing, but realistic and open, discussion about workers in the film craft and how they’ve been affected by the slowdown in Los Angeles film production. I don’t recommend reading it if you are just starting out in the industry because 1) it’s depressing and 2) you will be moving up in a very different world than Peggy and myself did. Your work outlook will be different, and the way in which you get and keep work will also be different.  This is a Very Good Thing, and you should pursue that path. And then you will definitely survive.

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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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Why Jobs’ Intro of the new Apple TV is Bull

8 09 2010

Sue Huang USC Presentation conclusion

I’m not saying that the Apple TV is bull, mind you. I’m talking about one or two of the points in the presentation.

But let me backtrack for a second. You’re going to have to bear with me for several paragraphs here, as I meander to my point.

It all started earlier tonight when I was down at USC (the University of Southern  California, for those of you who aren’t sure) watching a fascinating presentation by artist Sue Huang of the collective knifeandfork, which is doing some really fascinating interactive installation pieces which are site and audience specific.

Huang was showing samples of her work and discussing her influences using a PowerPoint (nope, not Keynote, but what are you going  to do?) presentation.  At the end, running out of time, she quickly put up a number of slides which discussed the various roles that different factors played in their work. One of them, at the left, was the “Role of the Audience” which was fascinating and very dense.  I reached for my iPhone (I was taking notes on it) and snapped the picture you see.

Now that I’m back home I can check out what I didn’t have time to read then.

Pretty obvious, right?  Pretty easy, right?

Well, then, why was the woman four people to my left frantically typing away on her iPad, taking the notes so she could read them at home?  My guess is because the freakin’ iPad doesn’t have a camera in it! I’m sure that some day that God-like device will have a camera in it — and then I’ll buy one — but for now, it’s one of the many things that it doesn’t have. Why? Because Apple decided that the public didn’t want a camera on this sleek, incredible, God-given device.

Uh, right. It would  look stupid, holding an iPad up to take pictures of Mom, Dad and your dog. Correct?

So, let’s leap back a few days. Last week, Steve Jobs introduced the new Apple TV (see this MacRumors report, one of about eight zillion stories written about it) by saying that they had listened to what their customers had said they wanted and they didn’t want. They wanted “Hollywood movies and TV shows whenever they want them.” – check!  Makes sense. They wanted “everything in HD” — uh,  okay.  Check, maybe.  My Mom still can’t tell the difference between SD and HD, but let’s give this one to Steve since given a choice, everyone wants something better quality, so long as they don’t have to pay for it.

What else?  “They like to pay lower prices for content.” - check!  Makes sense.  Cheap is better than expensive.  So, score another one for the Steverino.

Next two? “They don’t want a computer on their TV.” and “They don’t want to manage storage.” — check.  We don’t like things that are complex. I get that. (though one could argue that people do rather well managing their music storage on something called iTunes, which Jobs managed to introduce a new version of just twenty minutes earlier). So what did Apple do?  They took out the hard drive and made the device completely streaming. Check!  Makes sense .. uh no. Wait a minute.

Wait a minute.

I get the “no hard drive” part. It makes it too much like a computer. And people don’t want that, right?

Maybe. But let’s phrase the question differently. Would you like to watch anything that you have on your hard drive, whenever you want to? I’ll bet you do. And you’d  like to watch things that might not be available from the few partners that Apple has lined up for the Apple TV, right?  You might like to watch something from the Net that isn’t on YouTube or Netflix, wouldn’t you? I bet you would.  But Steve Jobs doesn’t think so. If it ain’t on Netflix, YouTube, your MobileMe account (hah!) or Flickr, then you’d better stream it over their own proprietary Airplay connection from your computer.

Wait a minute!  Your computer!?  The one with a hard drive in it? Doesn’t that make it hard?

So, what’s my point here?  It’s easy to knock any shipping product for what it doesn’t have.  Almost every product has things missing that would be on your “Must Have” list.  That’s  simply a reality of the design process. You need to compromise. But the desire to dress up these missing items in a ball gown and call them God’s gift to Prince Charming is  laughable.

In fact, it’s almost as laughable as filmmakers that I’ve seen look out at an audience that fails to laugh at a joke that has been planted in a film, and chalk it up to audience stupidity. Just as it’s easy to tell everybody that they should run out and see CATS AND DOGS IV because it’s in 3D!! Because you really really want 3D, don’t you?

It’s very easy in our business (as well as technology, I suppose) to get caught up in our thoughts, reactions and desires and ascribe them to everybody. If we feel that something is necessary, than everybody must feel that way, right?

One of the greatest talents that a filmmaker can possess is the ability to step outside of his or her own reality and question themselves. It’s hard, and it’s rare as a result.

“They don’t want to sync to a computer.”

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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.

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* 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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Just What Can Movie Theaters Charge? And how that’s good for indies.

6 08 2010

A recent article on THE WRAP discusses the very obvious downturn in box office for 3D films. This (they say) doesn’t prove that 3D is a fad but that “not every movie should be in 3D.”

While it’s easy to make broad generalizations based on very little evidence (hell, that’s what I do here, right?), it’s actually much more nuanced than that.

We’ll see what happens to STEP UP 3D this weekend, but we are clearly in the early stages of 3D adoption. I’m inherently skeptical that 3D is ever going to take over the film, tv and web content world, but I’m also waiting to see what will happen to movie 3D if television 3D becomes more popular. Once we become used to 3D on TV, will that make it a requirement in theaters, or will it simply cheapen the concept?

But it was a different sentence entirely that woke me up from this ongoing, every-present, 3D/2D discussion.

Speaking of Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the article says:

He also thinks exhibitors will have to move away from its age-old, one-size-fits-all pricing model.

“For the first time in a long time, I think you’re going to see some adjustment on that,” he added.

One of the things that may be damaging 3D admissions right now is the three to five dollar admission price premium that theaters are tacking onto their normal ticket prices. While that’s fine for a cool event film, it’s probably going to mean the difference between a Yea or a Nay for a family of five deciding whether to see a film on a weekend. Think about it — with three kids, you’re already laying out over 50 bucks for tickets and another 30 or 40 for food. That’s about $100 before you even think about 3D. Add another 15 to 20 bucks for that incredible stereoscopic experience in CATS AND DOGS and you’ll probably get as many people saying “Nah, I heard that the film wasn’t so good” as say “It’s worth it just to shut the kids up for two hours.”

But Katzenberg’s point is well-taken. We expect that first class air flight is going to cost more than economy. We know that putting premium gas in our tanks will cost us more than regular. Don’t we? Why should we expect that every seat, in every theater in a multiplex, for every movie, will cost the same amount. It’s long been accepted that people going to see the less popular matinee performances of a film will pay less.  Isn’t that just another way of saying that people going to evening films will pay more? If that’s the case, why shouldn’t people who decide not to put on the 3D glasses pay less than those who do?

The key here would be to create a sliding scale for films that better reflects the demand for that experience. Would you pay 15 bucks to see the next HARRY POTTER film?  Perhaps, if you can guarantee me that I won’t have to pay anything more than 9 or 10 bucks to see the latest Nicole Holofcener film. I’m not saying this because PLEASE GIVE isn’t as good a film as the 58th film about Hogwarts School of Magic, but because fewer people want to see it. Think about it — this could be great for small indie films. Incentivise people to see indie films in a theater. Make it cheap to see them on a Wednesday night in a smaller theater without 3D. Make it a great alternative on Saturday night to the 3D/super Dolby-ized, VFX-heavy/big theater Potter and Snape. Then give me the opportunity to upgrade my indie ticket with comfier seats, reserved seats and better placement in the theater.  I’m there for you baby!

I’m not talking about ghetto-izing these films. The success of the Laemmle or Arclight style experience (with comfortable seats, good food and advanced seat reservations) proves that people will pay for value. But your definition of value is almost certainly different than mine. And the next person’s. If lower ticket prices are more important to you than comfy seats, then you should be given the opportunity to act on that. But once you leave behind the idea of one ticket price for every seat in a theater, then you’ve really freed yourself up for some great opportunities to bring people into the theaters, as opposed to driving them away.

The tricky thing here will be to avoid having theater owners gouge their patrons, and to avoid having film distributors gouging theater owners. One valuable service that the defunct, though not lamented, Hollywood Stock Exchange gave was a number which roughly correlated with people’s desire to see a film. AOL’s Moviefone provides similar data. This doesn’t mean that those numbers are always right, but they do lead the way to a pricing model that studios would have to take into account in order for theaters to price their tickets on a sliding scale.

In a world where theaters are competing with the Net for viewers, taking a cue from the web and letting viewers pay for content that they want might not be such a bad idea.

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