Tools of the Trade

With the cost of software plummeting, tools previously beyond the reach of doc-makers are now within their grasp. RealScreen asks the experts for their advice on editing, compositing, FX and DVD packages
September 1, 2004

There was once a time when high-end software was beyond the budgets of doc-makers. But that time seems to be passing thanks to capable entry-level programs such as Apple’s Final Cut Pro, laptop-based editors, and affordable dv video camcorders.

Still, the question remains: what programs make good investments for the cash-strapped filmmaker? Not all entry-level editing software is ready for primetime. Besides, buy the wrong hardware platform and doc-makers could find themselves with nothing more than a decent gaming computer. (It may help pass the time while you’re running through your unemployment, but that’s about it.)

To get the inside scoop, RealScreen went to the top, and sought the advice of experienced editors in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. Here’s what they’re using and why. They also offered their ‘second-best’ choices, should their current editing systems suddenly disappear. Best of all, they dispensed advice on entry-level systems for budget-minded doc-makers. So turn off the PlayStation, it’s time for some real computer fun.

Pete Kyle

Crankfilms (Leiston, U.K.)

Having edited for clients such as BBC Choice, Anglia TV, and Channel 5, video editor Pete Kyle is unambiguous about his software choices. ‘I use Apple’s Final Cut Pro for everything,’ he asserts. For about £650 (US$1,200), ‘it is quick, user-friendly and intuitive.’ In addition to Final Cut Pro, Kyle uses a Hamlet Program Level Meter to monitor the quality of his audio/video mixes. Priced at about £700 ($1,300), Kyle dubs the HPLM ‘great’ – ‘It keeps an eye on peaks in luma and audio that could easily be missed on fast turnover work.’

Ironically, Kyle developed the skills to run Final Cut Pro by using Avid’s nonlinear editing software. ‘I learned on Avid and Final Cut Pro is a perfect place to use those skills,’ he says. Were FCP not available, Kyle would use Avid Media Composer. He stresses, however, that the Avid platform costs ‘considerably more than FCP and, in my opinion, [is] not as good to use.’

Like most video editors, Kyle has a software wish list. ‘I would really like an MS Decoder (a mid/side stereo decoder that creates a nice ambient stereo) for FCP,’ he says. ‘MS is a great way to record stereo audio, but there is no way of easily working with it in FCP.’ Kyle also admits to being a little tempted by Apple’s motion graphics program, Motion. At an introductory price of $300, he’s not likely to be alone.

Kyle’s advice to editors on a budget? ‘I would go for a cheapy FCP solution,’ he says. ‘My edit suite cost about £12,000 ($22,000), but if you were on a real budget you could buy an iMac, a Firewire camcorder, a pair of good headphones, a Firewire external drive and Final Cut Pro and be up and running for about £3,000 ($5,500).’

Going cheap is fine – if that is all you can afford – but resist the temptation to bootleg editing software. You lose out on version upgrades and you might get caught. Notes Kyle, ‘Everyone ends up paying the price for that. Realize that the few hundred dollars you spend are a long-term investment and a real bargain. [Besides], when you look at what you were paying to hire an online suite six years ago, that should put things in perspective.’

Doug Church

Digital 7 (Toronto, Canada)

Doug Church is senior partner at Digital 7, a video production and web design firm in Toronto. When it comes to video editing, DVD authoring and sound production, Church prefers Sony’s Vegas Video (us$550), DVD ($800 as a combo with Vegas) and Sound Forge ($400) programs. ‘They work together seamlessly and I think the platform is the easiest and most user-friendly,’ he explains.

Church adds Boris Software Film FX and ‘numerous video and sound plug-ins, such as noise reduction.’ Boris offers several FX, titling and add-on packages ranging from a few hundred dollars for products like the Title Toolkit, to full compositing and FX set-ups running $1,500. Adds Church, ‘I [also] use Flash and Zaxwerks 3D ($650 or less) for titles and animations.’ After Sony, Church’s next video/audio editing choices would be Avid and Avid Pro Tools.

For starving video editors on a budget, Church offers these words of wisdom: ‘Definitely go PC. Even though it’s not the industry favorite, PC gets points for cost efficiency and overall usability. You can get a great dual monitor system for under $1,500, including a DV camera.’

As for software, Church notes, ‘Sony offers a production bundle [made up of Vegas Video 4.0, Sound Forge 6.0, and Acid Pro 4.0 stock music] for a really great price. You’ll spend less time learning and more time getting the job done.’ He continues, ‘Buy the producer series of [royalty-free] music loops available from Sony’s Acid music. It is a really quick way to add professional scores to your projects for very little money.’

James Storie

Medium Inc. (Toronto, Canada)

Like many video editors, James Storie is a big fan of Final Cut Pro. ‘It is undoubtedly our tool of choice,’ says the president of Medium Inc., a digital design company based in Toronto. ‘Final Cut Pro… [is] easy to use and full featured. It’s inexpensive, powerful and productive.’

Medium supplements Final Cut Pro with Adobe After Effects ($1,000) for compositing and motion graphics. For dvd authoring, the company relies on Apple’s DVD Studio Pro ($500). ‘No real alternative exists at the price point, where features and usability are concerned,’ notes Storie. ‘In our opinion, these tools are the standard for desktop use.’

Storie is so satisfied with his current software package, he doesn’t have a wish list to offer – but he has lots of advice for cash-strapped filmmakers trying to decide where to spend their meager budgets. ‘Throw as much money at the platform as possible,’ says Storie. ‘The latest processors can mean a dramatic reduction in working times, especially when rendering is involved. [Be sure to also] max out the memory available and invest in top-notch graphics cards.’

But what platform should an editor buy? Since Medium is a ‘cross-platform operation,’ Storie has ample experience cutting on both Macs and PCs. His verdict? While ‘PCs have the edge in cost and availability of add-ons (DVD burners and other peripherals), Apple simply makes the best turn-key solutions,’ he says. ‘A G5 with two gigs of RAM and all the disk space you can afford will be a great platform for the Adobe Creative Suite and After Effects, Final Cut Pro, and DVD Studio Pro.’ Finally, adds Storie, ‘running a secondary monitor can greatly improve your working environment – a lot of software has an insatiable appetite for screen real estate.’

James Bowhall

Crawford Communications (Atlanta, U.S.)

As an effects editor/animator with Atlanta’s Crawford Communications, James Bowhall uses some pretty high-end equipment. ‘I run two workstations,’ he says. ‘The first is a Windows XP station with Discreet 3ds max6 (a top-notch 3-D animation package at $7,000), Discreet Combustion (motion graphics for $1,000) as well as Adobe After Effects, Photoshop ($650) and Illustrator ($500). It’s a 3-D workstation with graphic layout and design capabilities.

‘The other is a Silicon Graphics Tezro workstation running Discreet Flame and Smoke for compositing and effects work on a faster and larger scale.’ (With the software included, such a system would run to more than $250,000.) As for add-ons: ‘On the Flame/Smoke, we have a Discreet Sparks package that gives us added abilities in image processing and effects creation,’ says Bowhall. ‘I am currently using several plug-in packages that increase our capabilities, but also expand our abilities in image processing and effects creation.’

All told, Bowhall has access to a wealth of editing tech, all of which he uses on a regular basis. ‘In many cases, a project is run through both workstations; creating and designing on the smaller platform first, then moving up to the Flame for final composite,’ he explains. ‘They are incredibly fast systems and perform any and all tasks I may need.’

So what would Bowhall use for video editing if his two workstations suddenly vanished? ‘For the 3-D aspects, I would say Alias Maya ($2,000) and Newtek Lightwave ($1,600), but for the effects composite, there are no runners-up. If I had to make a choice, I would say Avid DS,’ he says. However, he continues, ‘there is less an issue with what these other software packages are missing and more an issue of what an artist prefers. You can accomplish all the same tasks in any of the major 3-D applications out there – they are all fundamentally the same. The differences are minor, so it really comes down to the user and their knowledge of the package.’

As for new software that might tempt him, Bowhall says he is ‘always looking for new upgrades to my current packages… As an artist, I am also very loyal to these packages, but if a new product came along I would be open to looking at it. I personally don’t know of anything coming down right now. I have an extensive tool set and I am not lacking in anything at the moment.’

Blessed as he is by this wealth of software, Bowhall can be forgiven for not being an expert with entry-level editing systems. That said, he contends that cash-strapped editors can’t go wrong buying Final Cut Pro and any Adobe software.

In addition, he notes, ‘look for the more popular programs and systems out there. This will enable you to hire artists that are instantly familiar with the package. It also makes support and user information easier to obtain.’

Harry Skopas

Charlex (New York, U.S.)

Anyone who has watched television lately has probably seen some Cingular or Sunny D commercials produced by Charlex of New York. As Charlex’s vp of engineering, Harry Skopas plays a central role in getting these commercials edited. To make it happen, he oversees a network

of seven workstations running Discreet’s Smoke 26.0, one workstation running Avid Media Composer, and two more running Apple’s Final Cut Pro. ‘We’re very happy with Smoke, because it does virtually everything we need it to do,’ says Skopas. ‘As good as it is, Avid Media Composer can’t match Smoke in motion graphics effects editing. Meanwhile, although Final Cut Pro is a nice tool, it doesn’t have the capabilities or professional support of Avid or Smoke.

‘Currently, we’re well-equipped with what we have,’ adds Skopas. ‘However, we could use some tools to help us deal with multi-resolution projects, which include the gamut of new hdtv formats that are hitting the market at various frame rates.’

So what would Skopas steer the thrifty editor towards? ‘The cheapest option is to get a Mac G4 or G5 laptop, equip it with Apple’s Final Cut Pro, and connect your DVCAM directly to it,’ he suggests. ‘For the documentary maker, this provides an economical and robust editing platform. Mind you, FCP’s strength is not in effects editing, but most documentaries make their statement through creative editorial.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.