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Getting giddy over today’s toys could risk HD problems tomorrow

The most profound change in post-production over the last five years has been the proliferation of powerful, yet low-cost editing tools. Aggressive moves in development by Adobe, Apple, Avid and others have combined with remarkable advances in hard drive, graphics processing unit, codec, and mobile technologies to shift the landscape of how we post any given project. Not surprisingly, many productions have been seduced by the opportunities made possible by these new breed editing tools, most notably the reduction in cost and acceleration of schedules in what is sometimes still sensibly called the 'offline' edit.
October 1, 2006

The most profound change in post-production over the last five years has been the proliferation of powerful, yet low-cost editing tools. Aggressive moves in development by Adobe, Apple, Avid and others have combined with remarkable advances in hard drive, graphics processing unit, codec, and mobile technologies to shift the landscape of how we post any given project. Not surprisingly, many productions have been seduced by the opportunities made possible by these new breed editing tools, most notably the reduction in cost and acceleration of schedules in what is sometimes still sensibly called the ‘offline’ edit.

But, as the complexity of HD continues to climb from a bedrock of obscurity, misinformation and outright myth, a good number of productions will find that they have been lured into false expectations when it comes to the actual utility of these tools. As such, without careful implementation, the painful creative and budgetary expenses caused by depending too heavily on new editing tools will allow the hd colossus to effectively wipe them out from many workflows.

This perspective may seem a bit alarmist coming from a post house, but it is important to consider that which has led us to such a critical point: an arms race. In an era of fevered competition, software and hardware manufacturers have, of course, all vied for our attention. Each has its own brand of well-polished, mountebank hype, making us keenly aware of the benefits of working with its newfangled editing wares. Loving the work as we do, we turn giddy at the pioneering prospect of new gear and new approaches and are transformed into an easy audience of sophomoric believers. And so begins trouble.

Too infrequent is the production that investigates the costs of working with these new editing tools beyond the simple expense of buying the toys themselves. At their best, next gen tools certainly have the potential to help us tell better stories and, as the brass of every responsible production company will insist, tell them more lucratively. But, at their worst, they further complicate the already cumbersome mechanics of filmmaking, adding another layer that has to be managed and paid for, either creatively or financially.

Some examples of creative expense: using editing tools on set can provide shoot-day rough cuts or pre-visualization, giving a level of insurance to a project involving expensive visual effects set-ups. But at what point does the technical minutiae of field editing, especially that of HD, make the director lazy with camera pre-planning, keep his attention from performance and result in schedule delays? At what point does field editing subvert story? Prominent film editor Walter Murch contends that the full potential of footage cannot be explored and the best story told unless the editor is isolated from the mania of production and its political, as well as logistical, preconceptions.

It is in these situations that a production should associate a creative cost with the decision to include post within a shooting schedule. Just because a new editing rig can be inexpensively brought to set, does not necessarily make it the best creative method for the project. And when strong logic requires editing tools in the field, it should be asked if the budget can accommodate a post supervisor (or staff) that can both minimize the unwelcome footprint that technology can leave on technique, as well as keep the editor locked away to carefully consider the story that actually made it through production unscathed.

While creative expenses can be, and are too often, dismissed as less important than financial ones, it may prove that the budgetary sting of depending too much on next gen editing tools is what will truly allow the complexity of HD to make them extinct. The development of low-cost editing software has catalyzed the rapid growth of the editor community, providing productions with a larger, borderless talent pool from which to draw. While this progression has translated into a modern democratization of voice and given rise to an uncompromising surge of exceptional documentaries, it has also made dependable talent harder to find. Sure, there are lots of ‘editors’ out there. Some even manage to run a bootlegged copy of Apple’s Final Cut Pro, pass themselves off as competent, and in so doing, sully the reputation of what is otherwise decent software.

By mistaking qualified editing tools for qualified editors, productions will have their budgets torn apart in order to repair poorly offlined projects as they reach an expensive hd online suite, if not before. Despite what all manufacturers would have us believe, working with HD can be (but is rarely as simple as) passing files over a single firewire cable. Projects that require down-converts, frame rate cross-converts, SD up-scaling, multi-mastering, etc. will easily expose an editor who has not done his homework or a production that skimped on hiring skilled assistants. In the end, the loss of profit will be the defining moment when productions see the new breed editing tools as points of failure in their process and will willingly see them consumed by the HD colossus.

These sorts of creative and financial challenges have shifted the way we, and indeed all post houses, approach our business and, in particular, project migration. Consultation, which in years past was reserved for upper-tier clients, is something on which we now pride ourselves and even offer to non-clients. Recognizing that many productions now see opportunities to save money in offline, it is also a common practice for us to offer documented guidelines to help out-of-house offline editors set their timelines for a seamless transition into online.

Additionally, we have held HD seminars to help clients avoid the most common mistakes in making the jump from SD to HD. We have found time and again that accomplishing that goal is contingent upon us helping them understand the limitations of inexpensive editing tools, and the methods to best leverage their evolving versatility into their workflow. If we’re lucky and do this in good time, we may just keep HD from wiping out all the new editing tools we have learned to love.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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