The Insider's Guide to Production: Technology - The misled evangelism

The industry should be wary of one-size-fits-all technology. Specialised tools offer a much smarter solution.

In the early 90s, I became an evangelist. After graduating in the late 80s, I worked as an editor on a range of programming, both offlining (creating the narrative) and onlining (putting together the final tape master). I worked on tape, but did not see myself as a tape editor; the machines and controllers I worked on were simply the tools of my trade. Then, in the words of Jarvis Cocker, something changed.

I began to read about non-linear editing systems - or NLEs - that captured (digitised) the tape material on to computer for editing. My initial interest was a practical one. I was fed up with all the artwork we created for campaigns having to be captured on rostrum cameras or recreated on Astons (virtually impossible at the time) and I was excited at the thought that we might be able to incorporate those graphics directly from the Mac.

So I investigated further and found that NLEs offered me the narrative tools I had been longing for. There were arguments about the cost, but the time saved and the extra creativity sold it to me completely. I became an evangelist for this new technology, persuading all my clients to fork out for an NLE offline.

Clearly, I was not alone. Today, nearly everything is cut and finished in the non-linear environment and, at a conservative estimate, 95 per cent of it is done using Avid systems.

But there is a new evangelism that concerns me. It proclaims that you can do everything on a very cheap system, and that it is really easy to be creative because the tools are so cool. It is a very beguiling claim - but one I have to disagree with.

It is quite ironic that years of experience working within an industry can lead you to the most efficient workflows - and workflows that allow the most creativity - yet it seems so easy to forget why those workflows are the best. Instead of talking about the next step forward to facilitate the creative process, we are talking about taking backward steps because you can do it all on the desktop. Of course you can, and with any number of pieces of software. But just like the desktop publishing revolution of the 90s, are you going to end up with a better product at the end of it?

In my opinion, it is our responsibility to create the best possible television programme, commercial or movie, given the constraints of the budget and deadline. It is my experience that this is achieved by the best people using the best tools available. No matter how talented you are, you cannot give your best to each task when working on several simultaneously - and, in the same way, the tools you use should be just as focused on the task in hand. In short, there should be specialised tools for specialised people.

At a time when budgets are under constant pressure, shouldn't we be looking at ways to achieve economies by speeding up the production process and allowing the talent we have at our disposal to use their creativity as efficiently as possible? Instead of pretending that a one-box-fits-all solution is the answer to all our problems, isn't non-linear post-production the next logical step?

There are many occasions when productions can benefit enormously from speeding up the whole process, but having one person working on one system from start to finish simply won't do it. You need to start the edit while the shoot is still in progress, you may need to have multiple editors working concurrently and have audio, 3D and effects starting as the edit is being refined. While this is going on, you will probably want to send review and approval versions to multiple sites electronically. You are in a world of making, managing and moving media and you need a set of tools that has been honed for these purposes.

These things, as with so much in life, used to be simpler. We used to have film and we knew where we were with it. Now there are multiples of everything to contend with: digibeta, digital video and high-definition video for shooting, multiple levels of editing systems, 3D, computer-generated effects and compositing, Dolby audio, not to mention deliverables to television, satellite, web and 3G mobile phone technology.

It is great to have choice and variety - and they are a candy store for the creative - yet they create a complicated list of decisions. Get these decisions wrong and you could end up over budget and off the job. Getting your workflow right is increasingly important, and having it work all the time without fail is very hard to achieve.

But there are answers to all these problems, and that is what Avid has been concentrating on - creating smooth workflows from the camera to the deliverable (no matter what that may be) based on our post-production expertise. And we can multiply that expertise exponentially, considering the vast number of professionals in post-production facilities who are familiar with our tools.

The whole point with the professional post- workflow is to spend the thinking "creative" time on cheap software so that you are not hurried for fear of cost. You can take your laptop on set, then home or to the office to start logging your shots and creating a rough cut, and anything you do is recreated automatically in any Avid system anywhere in the world.

Then you can take those decisions to a fast and powerful system run by an expert in finishing, using the skill and craft of the editor or artist to enhance your production by applying the all-important finishing touches. You don't want them to waste time and money trying to recreate what you or your offline editor did before.

The new evangelism seems to be all about cheap non-linear editing, but it should be about non-linear post.

- Miguel Ferros is the European market manager for Post at Avid Technology.

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