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?



Filmmaking, Critics and Sound

1 08 2010

A recent podcast from the makers of /film called, oddly enough, /filmcast (you can pronounce the “slash”) gets into the varied opinions and passions around the movie INCEPTION (which I recommend you run right out and see even if you hate it — it’s fascinating filmmaking, even with its faults). Critics David ChenDevindra Hardawar, and Adam Quigley are joined by New York Press film critic and professional curmudgeon Armond White, who argues that INCEPTION was a horrible, shallow, inadequate piece of crap by a filmmaker who shows none of the talent that someone like Michael Bay showed in TRANSFORMERS 2.

I’m not here to argue with his point of view, or anyone’s for that matter.  Though White would strongly disagree, I believe that (at its best) film watching is a visceral experience as much as an intellectual one and, as such, can lead to great divergence of opinions.  There is no absolute right and wrong if a film is really working.

White went to Columbia University’s School of the Arts, receiving his MFA there. This gives him the cudgel that he uses to slap around a mesmerized and overly polite Chen. In fact, he tells all three of these Internet film critics, that he feels that Web film criticism is mostly uninformed and shallow, and that everyone who calls him or herself a film critic should be trained in the profession.  “Professional film critics,” such as himself, it seems, cannot be questioned by people who haven’t been to film school and taken courses where they sit with a Moviola (I’ll deal with this comment in a little bit) so they can examine films frame-by-frame. According to Wikipedia, White calls himself a “pedigreed film scholar,” without much definition of what he means by that broad statement (that statement can be found in a short, not particularly interesting, piece on him in Macleans, a more interesting and substantial read is a New York Magazine piece on him).

Now, I’m not here to support or bash White — plenty of much better writers, who are much more familiar with his work, have taken their shots already. But two comments that he made on /filmcast, as he argued against INCEPTION’s value as a film, strike me as immediately calling into question White’s qualifications, MFA and his “pedigree” claims aside (aside from the obvious one I mentioned above — that he still thinks that the Moviola is a viable tool to examine films frame-by-frame.  Where has he been for a decade?).

Read the rest of this entry »



Rules For Beginning Filmmakers

25 06 2010

Michael Kammes, over at the aptly named michaelkammes.com, has a great post from a column that he wrote for POST Magazine. It’s basically a list of all of the stupid stuff that young filmmakers tend to do in their interviews for jobs. It’s definitely worth a read for everyone because he points out some really basic concepts that many new filmmakers — either DIYers looking to get hired on something that will pay the bills, or students just fresh out of school having never really been out in the Real World — just simply haven’t had the opportunity to learn.

What is his number one?

Be on time or early. I am absolutely amazed at how little this is followed. Yes, I know there is traffic. Yes I know there is rain. But that means nothing to the person who has 5 meetings after the one with you. Show respect to them and their project. Be on time or early.

That is also one of my pet peeves. It is completely true that someone who shows up late one day on a set is rarely asked back for a second day. There are pretty much no excuses which are acceptable. I’m convinced that that’s why there’s the food truck (the infamous “Roach Coach”) on set bright and early — way before call time. They say it’s to make sure that crew members don’t wander off looking for breakfast, but I think it’s because so many of us leave so early to avoid being late to call time that we end up getting to set pretty early.  And, therefore, need to put something in our mouths to distract us.

If you’re working on a big film, then holding up a shoot is costing tens of thousands of dollars each hour. If you’re working on a low budget film, then holding up a shoot is stealing coverage from the director. If I’m not at a mix because I’m late, I can’t contribute to it — including the note that the director may have given me at midnight one time that only I know about.

Besides, it’s damned rude.

Another very wise rule from Mr. Kammes:

Understand the processes outside of your concentration. What you work with is a direct result of what the previous department did; just as the next step in the post process relies on you doing things correctly. Someone will mess a step up – and you need to be able to track it down. [Emphasis is mine.]

That’s what collaboration is all about. Those of us who have worked in editing are usually the people who work with the end credits. As a result, we know better than most, just how many shoulders we stand on in order to do our jobs well and look great. So, it’s better to understand just what the lab printing process is, or the pulldown changes that the sound department needs to incorporate into their work. That way, when we talk to them we show that we care about what they need from us in order to do their job well.  And we can gain their respect. That respect means a lot more to them than how smart we are, when we have to call them in the middle of a tough day of shooting to ask them to re-send some paperwork, or to discuss a potential problem.

So… scoot on over to Michael’s Scott’s site to get some smart talkin’.



Top Film Schools and… uh… film schools

25 06 2010

Shane Rivers, over at Only Good Movies has an article called “Top Film Schools” which, while a little too broad for my taste, is a great little list of film schools across the nation. He has something interesting in it, which also talks about film schools that have acting programs. This is great, because I find that one of the things that most scares incoming students is working with actors.

In point of fact, USC has an entire acting school, which collaborates well with our film school but has one really big problem — pretty much everyone in the school is the same age as the students making our movies. This means that our students need to go outside of the school in order to do stories with anyone over 30 or under 18.  Narrow range, for sure.

However, Shane’s point is very well taken. I think I learned as much about editing as I did about acting, when I sat in on an acting class for a couple of years.



Telling Stories Without Getting Hung Up in Technology

16 06 2010

2 Reel Guys - a videocast from Larry Jordan and Norman Hollyn

The biggest thing that attracted me to teach at USC full time, when I started there eight years ago, was the fact that the Dean told me that our mission was not to teach better toys (though we certainly have to teach technology) but to teach better storytelling.

I don’t know a single filmmaker who thinks that their job is to play with technology. Ask any cinematographer, editor, sound designer, production designer, actor, producer, director, etc. what they do for a living — and they’ll tell you that they’re storytellers.

So, it’s been a great disappointment that there is about fifty times more web content about what buttons you’d push then why you’d push those buttons. Sure, I learn a lot from video tutorials — I watch them all the time. I learn a ton from casts like Film Riot and Avid Screencast, as well as videos from Larry Jordan, Ripple Training, Lynda and more. But it pained me that there is so little out there about why you’d use a certain lens to tell a story, what costume designers do to help a script, how silence and sound work to push the meaning of a script, and more.

About a year ago, Larry Jordan (FCP guru, trainer and co-host of the necessary-to-listen-t0 show The Digital Production Buzz) and I were talking about working together, and it occurred to me that, together, we could create just such a videocast. Now, Larry is way more comfortable in front of a camera than I am, but I’ve been doing teaching and speaking for years, and had developed a number of very teachable concepts about story construction that I’d written about in my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT. Surely, we could pool our overlapping talents and come up with something that could help fill that gap.

Well, thanks to the support of Avid Technology, we’ve been able to do just that. We’ve already shot, and are finishing, 20 episodes of a new videocast called 2 Reel Guys in which we talk about the concepts of the Lean Forward Moment in storytelling. Each episode deals with a different aspect of how to use the initial storytelling concepts that we talk about in the first two episodes. Some of the concepts that we deal with (in 6-10 minutes each) include: how to work with actors, how sound design and camera techniques can help enforce the story that you want to tell. We’ll talk about editing, costume design, collaboration and much much more over the run of the series (which will hopefully go beyond these first 20). Starting yesterday, we’ve released the first two episodes of 2 Reel Guys, and we’ll unleash a new episode every two weeks — on the first and the fifteenth of each month. It’s the start of something which is quite exciting to me — bringing the concepts that we’ve been working with and teaching for years — to you; all for the low low cost of nothing.

That’s right. You can leave your wallets at the door (or on your night table, whichever is safer).

Give it a try and leave comments on our website.



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.



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.



Help Me Interview 5 Great Editors

7 06 2010

This coming Friday night (June 11, 2010), I’m going to be running the opening night panel at EditFestNY enititled “The Lean Forward Moment” (try and guess where we got that title from) during which I’m going to be interviewing five great editors: Michael Berenbaum, A.C.E. (Sex and the City 1 and 2), Joe Klotz, A.C.E. (Precious, Junebug),  Andrew Mondshein, A.C.E. (Remember Me, Chocolat, The Sixth Sense),  Susan Morse, A.C.E. (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters), and Andrew Weisblum, A.C.E. (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Wrestler).

Now, here’s where you can get involved.  First off, if you’re in the area, register for this two-day event.  It’s going to be well worth your while and, honestly, with the discounts for students, or many user groups (both FCP and Avid) you’ll more than get your money’s worth — cocktails on Friday, pizza and beer on Saturday, along with some great panels.

But here’s another way that you can involved.  I am going to ask each of the panelists to show a scene from a film that influenced that filmmakers, and then all six of us are going  to talk about it. Here is a preview (the first look — never before announced) at what you’ll see if you’re there:

  1. Michael Berenbaum is showing the opening sequence from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, directed by Sergio Leone and edited by Nino Baragli in
  2. Joe Klotz is showing an early scene from DOG DAY AFTERNOON, directed by Sidney Lumet and edited by Dede Allen in 1975
  3. Andy Mondshein is showing the last scene from BONNIE AND CLYDE, directed by Arthur Penn and edited by Dede Allen (again!!  how fitting) in 1967,
  4. Sandy Morse is showing the opening of THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, directed by Julian Schnabel and edited by Juliette Welfling in 2007,
  5. Andrew Weisblum is showing the “birth of the hula hoop” scene from THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, directed by Joel Coen and edited by Thom Noble in 1994.

Whether you’re going to be at EditFestNY or not, what I’d love for you to do is submit questions for these editors.  I’ll select a few and ask them for you.  What is it that you’d like to know about that scene or how it affected each of these editors.  You can submit the questions here, or tweet them to me on Twitter.  My name there is @schnittman.



Meet Editors, Talk Editing, Have Cocktails

30 05 2010

One of the difficulties that many up and coming editors face in this age of DIY has to do with social connections.  With the size of editing crews down to the bare  minimum, it is hard for people to learn from other editors, and much harder to meet with people who might be able to help them improve their skills and job prospects. When I was starting out, back in the Stone Age of editing (I often joke that I cut my first film on a flip book), I apprenticed for a few years, stood next to some really great editors as an assistant for some years after that, and only then did I start editing. It was a fantastic way to learn all of the skills needed in an editing room — technical, aesthetic and political.

Now, I’m not romanticizing those Good Old Days. The idea that my students (and thousands of You Tubers) don’t have to wait eight years to start editing something on their own is pretty great, considering that they’ve grown up surrounded by edited material in a way that I did not. And my students, for better or worse, have spent 3-5 years experimenting with the form and developing great skills.

Still, the chance to meet and hear really fantastic editors talk about their craft is never to be passed up, as is the chance to have some drinks and pizza with them.  Which is why I am heartily recommending that those of you within driving distance of Manhattan on June 11-12 register today for the upcoming EditFestNY.  This is a 1-1/2 day meetup of editors where we are going to discuss our craft.  There are panels galore, with editors such of features and television, fiction and documentaries.

It starts off on Friday June 11 at 7:15pm with a panel that I am thrilled to be moderating (called with the editors Michael Berenbaum, A.C.E. (Sex and the City 1 and 2), Joe Klotz, A.C.E. (Precious, Junebug),  Andrew Mondshein, A.C.E. (Remember Me, Chocolat, The Sixth Sense),  Susan Morse, A.C.E. (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters), and  Andrew Weisblum, A.C.E. (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Wrestler).  I’m asking each one of these editors to show a scene from a film that inspires them in some way, and the entire panel is going to talk about the clips.  It should be a huge blast.

To get more information about this two-day event (including the guests) and to register, just click on the link at A.C.E., which is sponsoring the event along with the Manhattan Editing Workshop.  Discounts are available for students and for members of a ton of user groups (including any Avid or Final Cut Pro user groups — and since membership in LAFCPUG, for instance, is free you can get the $100 discount just by signing up).  The event promises to give you great access and knowledge all in one friendly weekend — and there’s drinks on Friday night, and pizza and beer on Saturday, so how can you go wrong?



The Right Tool For The Job and ROI

27 05 2010

AppleInsider had an article on May 18, 2010 which was titled “Apple Scaling Final Cut Studio Apps to fit prosumers” which generated a ton of blogosphere panic. Even I was caught up in the rumor mongering here, reacting to a post I’d read on Twitter and then, after reading the AI piece, tweeting about it myself. Phillip Hodgetts had a very intelligent post on his blog last week that used a historical approach to take the AppleInsider piece apart, rebutting nearly everything that the article said. Larry Jordan followed up with another article which also took pains to point out why that original piece was Dead Wrong.

But, in doing so, he made another excellent point.

For me, this is the key point — as editors our job is to tell stories visually. The tools we have today do a really great job of helping us put food on the table and pay the rent.

The emphasis is mine, by the way.

Now, I’d be the last one to paraphrase Larry (though I will be doing a bunch of that in a vidcast with him which will start in mid-June — more details on that to come), but let me try. What I think was so cogent about Larry’s comment is this: We only need enough tools to do the best job we can.

Of course, there’s a lot to pick apart in that statement. We were fine working on 35mm and 16mm film, drawing diagonal grease pencil lines down the middle of the film to indicate dissolves. But then videotape editing came along and, soon, we were able to actually see that dissolve. Very quickly, those diagonal lines were not “doing the best job” anymore.

Then there’s the reality that one editor’s “need” is another one’s “nice to have but I don’t care.” New tools in Avid’s Media Composer make displaying 3D footage must easier, but most everyone I know doesn’t work in 3D so (for now) we won’t care about it.

But those issues aside, the truth of that statement is strong. It’s not as important for us to have access to every tool out there, as it is to have the right tool. Until very recently, many feature films were edited on a very old version of Avid’s Media Composer hardware and software because that version of the program was stable, worked beautifully and gave editors everything they needed. Of course, with the advent of HD and visual effects, you can’t say that anymore, except if your job only involves straightforward SD editing. Then the urge to upgrade just isn’t there. Businesses call it ROI (“return on investment”) and the equation holds true in editing as well. Will we make or save as much money upgrading to a new tool as it will take to buy it, install it and (most importantly) learn it?

As the world changes, our editing tools must change of course. But the inverse is not necessarily true; as our editing tools change, the world doesn’t have to change as well. If something works really well in version 4.0 or in version 6, why should we upgrade to 5.0 or 7?

Incorporating new technology into our own work lives can be fraught with peril and we’ll only jump at the changes that make sense. How can we determine what makes sense without reflexively avoiding something just because it’s a change, or darting to every new bell and whistle just because it is new? Good question. We deal with that all the time.

Recently, I’ve been playing with two tools that are designed to make editing life more sensible and I’ve now incorporated them into my own editing life. In each case, I got something more by the change, than I had to put out in order to make that change. That is real life ROI.

I first saw PluralEyes back at NAB in 2009, where it was stuck all the way at a side wall. The way it was pitched to me got my juices excited — this is a tool for editors (FCP only at the time, it has now expanded to Premiere and Vegas; where is Media Composer???) that will automatically sync takes from different cameras that were shot at the same time and have matching audio. This seemed to be a godsend editors of music videos or events (think speeches or weddings) that are captured using multiple cameras. Six cameras capturing a speech can be easily sunk up to each other, even if the audio is of varying quality. Editors who have to sync multiple takes of a musical performance that was shot to a common playback will also benefit from this.

What a cool idea, right? I can hear editors all over the world counting up the amount of time that they will be saving in syncing up footage. In the “old days” this would have involved finding common points between each and every take (a verse where the band sang the word “Killer”, for instance — hard consonants like “K” are useful in finding sync), mark a sync point at those points in all of the takes, and combine the takes into one multicamera clip. This was pretty reliable but was incredibly time consuming and prone to error, especially if the person doing the syncing had to make sure that he/she wasn’t using that same word, but from different verses. In addition, at times the audio on an individual camera might not have been at the same level or quality as another camera, making it harder find the exact match by listening or looking at the audio waveforms in our NLEs.

So, PluralEyes could be a great timesaver but in order to do that, it has to require less work to set up than we benefit by using it. As examples, Avid’s ScriptSync used to take too much of my editing time to set up and so I never used it. Once they put voice recognition into it, it became a very usable tool and I now love it. On the other hand, I’m still waiting for Adobe’s Transcription tool to get to a usable state — right now I get around 50% accuracy, which creates more work fixing a transcription than I’ve saved by doing it automatically in the first place — Scott Simmons has a great review of it in his Editblog.

So, was PluralEyes helpful? Does it pass that test?

Way yes!! It can’t sync everything, but it does a great job of finding the sync points between takes, even if one of the clips is only a partial subclip from waaaaay down in a take. It does a remarkable, though not flawless, job in matching audio recorded at different levels and echo. I was able to effortlessly sync two cameras with direct feed audio, up to one that was using the camera mic, with all of its attendant room echo and noise. In the one or two cases where, for no known reason, it couldn’t sync up a track, it created a separate FCP timeline with those clips on it. This made it easy to see what wasn’t automatically sunk up so I was able to hand-sync those pieces. Synching two or three pieces, rather than thirty, is a huge time saving and so PluralEyes deserved to be in my editing tool chest.

It was the Right Tool for that very limited job and, even at $149, that was way worth it (Honesty Policy: Singular sent me a review copy of PluralEyes, so I didn’t pay that $149. But that doesn’t change my feeling about its worth.) I don’t know what your pay scale is, but if you use this application for three jobs and it saves you two hours in each, that’s about $25 an hour. If you’re not charging at least that for your time, you are either a student or starving or both. One key to this program’s success is its laser beam focus on one thing — help editors sync audio takes together quickly. That’s it. Priced accordingly, it’s a no-brainer for anyone who needs that one thing.

As an aside, Larry Jordan mentioned in his May 20, 2010 Digital Production Buzz podcast, that he has more editing applications on his computer than you can “shake a stick at”. (I’m not sure why you’d want a shake a stick at a computer — I often shake my fists, but that’s different.) He went on to say that he used different ones because not every NLE is good as another at specific things. I got to thinking about that. I used Media Composer a lot for my editing, but I absolutely hate their Titles creation tool — both Marquee and AvidFX/Boris — so I usually bop over to Motion to create lower thirds and the like and then import those files into my Avid machine. The right tool for the job. This is another example of creating a focus on single tasks. When I want to teach students how to create a simple DVD I’d rather use iDVD than DVD Studio Pro (even in it’s simple mode) because it’s Stupid Easy. But it’s phenomenally awful to do anything more complicated. For that I use DVD Studio Pro.

I apologize here for my total lack of knowledge of most Adobe products. I’ve been quite impressed by their improvements in the last few years, but my main body of knowledge still revolves around the NLEs that we use most here in the US — primarily the Media Composer and Final Cut.

Sorenson 360Another tool that I’ve been testing on and off for several months is something called Sorenson 360, which makes it much easier to upload videos that I’ve created for viewing and approval by my producing and directing collaborators. It will come as no surprise to those of you who have been reading this blog for a while that I am a strong proponent of long distance collaboration. I believe that, for editors of the future to be successful, we are going to have to be working with clients all over the world, often many of them at the same time. The feature I’m cutting now has me sitting in front of my computer in Los Angeles, the director is in Rhode Island and the producer is in Massachusetts. We need to be able to easily show each other sequences without flying all over the U.S. To that end, a number of cloud-based review and approval sites have been born on the web. They make compressing, commenting and approving much easier.

Sorenson 360 does all of that to great degree. Like any good compression tool, Sorenson Squeeze can take a while to efficiently and decently compress your films. For a 2 minute trailer that I recently created for that feature I mentioned, it took over an hour. For a documentary that I’m editing on Global Rivers, I had to create a 12 minute excerpt reel. The compression on that sequence, which was originally shot in HD/P2 format, took at least three hours — I left it after about 50 minutes and let it work overnight. When it was done, I had the site send me and my producers an email message that the upload was ready for them and gave them the password. It could have also sent us a text message as well.

Now, as anyone who has ever done any compression can tell you, finding the right compression settings is never as easy as they tell you. I’m okay at this, but I never can find the proper settings for quality, size and platform right out of the gate. Most compression programs give you a number of presets for each use but I find that these are no more than starting points. I am continually tweaking the settings for optimal image quality and web playability. Of course, once you determine the best setting for a particular project you should save it in a preset so you can use it all the time without the need to experiment each and every time (and I usually create a preset or two for each project I do — compression seems to be that finicky).

So, Sorenson Squeeze does all of that, as does Compressor. But Sorenson also provides a direct connection to its Content Delivery Network — the aformentioned Sorenson360 — as well as the notifications that streamline the approval process. It also gives me some rudimentary metrics — such as how many views each video received as well as the viewing duration for each video. This is great for web videos so you can basically tell where a viewer stopped watching your show (I find that the average viewer often dumps out of a video part way through — this way you can find out a bit of the “why”).

So, is this a tool that you need? And is it a tool that’s worth the cost (after a year of the free service that comes with Sorenson 6, the costs “start at $99″ and, yes, their website is that opaque about the costs saying that it’s “pay-as-you-go”)? Well, it depends on what you need it for. Brightcove, a leader in the CDN space (also acronymed the “ODN space” — Online Delivery Network), already provides pretty strong streaming in a variety of platforms with a full set of the statistics necessary for advertisers and sponsors. Can Sorenson deliver the same goods? Their prices range from the same $99 per month (50 videos and 40GB of bandwidth) to $5oo (for 500 videos and 250GB bandwidth).

I have to say that I’m not a Brightcove user so I don’t know the answer to that question. The real question is whether I’d reup with Sorenson 360 when my free one-year is up, and that is also a decision based on my own needs. I don’t create so many videos per month that $1200/year is worth it for me. But if you’re a video professional who finds him or herself increasingly working over distances this also might be the right tool for the job. I love its integration with Sorenson Squeeze (my compressor of choice). I love that I can drop a timecode window on top of my video in Squeeze to provide my producers with an easy way to key their notes to a specific spot in the video. I like the RTMP streaming which enables viewers to easily start a video from any point within the stream, rather than start at the top. I don’t like the fact that there are presently only two real formats for display — H.264 or Flash. I’d like some HTML5 capabilities as well. But it’s a great tool; well thought out and (with the recent upgrade to Version 2) becoming increasingly more sophisticated.

To see the example of how I used this tool on the Global Rivers documentary, you can temporarily check it out at my Sorenson360 site. I output this 12 minute trailer to a Quicktime movie, compressed it in Sorenson 6 and uploaded it to that site behind a password which, in this case, is “globalrivers“.

But, for many people, these applications could be another example of The Right Tool. Would it be really cool if we could get all of this in Final Cut or Media Composer? Maybe. Would it be awesome to be able to create Edit Lists or Film Cut Lists right in our NLE (the way we used to in Media Composer) without having to jump out to a separate program? Again — maybe.

Larry Jordan’s point is well taken. Not every tool needs to do everything. In fact, at a certain point, a tool that does everything is going to resemble Microsoft Word, where most users don’t take advantage of 95% of what the program can do, but it loads incredibly slow nonetheless because Microsoft is putting everything in the tool. Every NLE is going to need just the right tools to let the editors do their job, and no more. The real trick, with so many different editors out there, is figuring out just what the bulk of our editors need, and then give them The Right Tools to do that.

[PluralEyes disclaimer added – June 2, 2010]