The State of the NLE 2019

It’s a new year, but the doesn’t mean that the editing software landscape will change drastically in the coming months. For all intents and purpose, professional editing options boil down to four choices: Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro X, and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. Yes, I know Vegas, Lightworks, Edius, and others are still out there, but those are far off on the radar by comparison (no offense meant to any happy practitioners of these tools). Naturally, since blogs are mainly about opinions, everything I say from here on is purely conjecture. Although it’s informed by my own experiences with these tools and my knowing many of the players involved on the respective product design and management teams – past and present.

Avid continues to be the go-to NLE in the feature film and episodic television world. That’s certainly a niche, but it’s a niche that determines the tools developed by designers for the broader scope of video editing. Apple officially noted two million users for Final Cut Pro X last year and I’m sure it’s likely to be at least 2.5M by now. Adobe claims Premiere Pro to be the most widely used NLE by a large margin. I have no reason to doubt that statement, but I have also never seen any actual stats. I’m sure through the Creative Cloud subscription mechanism Adobe not only knows how many Premiere Pro installations have been downloaded, but probably has a good idea as to actual usage (as opposed to simply downloading the software). Bringing up the rear in this quartet is Resolve. While certainly a dominant color correction application, I don’t yet see it as a key player in the creative editing (as opposed to finishing) space. With the stage set, let’s take a closer look.

Avid Media Composer

Editors who have moved away from Media Composer or who have never used it, like to throw shade on Avid and its marquee product. But loyal users – who include some of the biggest names in film editing – stick by it due in part to familiarity, but also its collaborative features and overall stability. As a result, the development pace and rate of change is somewhat slow compared with the other three. In spite of that, Avid is currently on a schedule of a solid, incremental update nearly every month – each of which chips away at a long feature request list. The most recent one dropped on December 31st. Making significant changes without destroying the things that people love is a difficult task. Development pace is also hindered by the fact that each one of these developers is also chasing changes in the operating system, particularly Apple and macOS. Sometimes you get the feeling that it’s two steps forward, one step back.

As editors, we focus on Media Composer, but Avid is a much bigger company than just that, with its fingers in sound, broadcast, storage, cloud, and media management. If you are a Pro Tools user, you are just as concerned about Avid’s commitment to you, as editors are to them. Like any large company, Avid must advance not just a single core product, but its ecosystem of products. Yet it still must advance the features in these products, because that’s what gets users’ attention. In an effort to improve its attraction to new users, Avid has introduced subscription plans and free versions to make it easier to get started. They now cover editing and sound needs with a lower cost-of-entry than ever before.

I started nonlinear editing with Avid and it will always hold a spot in my heart. Truth be told, I use it much less these days. However, I still maintain current versions for the occasional project need plus compatibility with incoming projects. I often find that Media Composer is the single best NLE for certain tasks, mainly because of Avid’s legacy with broadcast. This includes issues like proper treatment of interlaced media and closed captioning. So for many reasons, I don’t see Avid going away any time soon, but whether or not they can grow their base remains an unknown. Fortunately many film and media schools emphasize Avid when they teach editing. If you know Media Composer, it’s an easy jump to any other editing tool.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC

The most widely used NLE? At least from what I can see around me, it’s the most used NLE in my market, including individual editors, corporate media departments, and broadcasters. Its attraction comes from a) the versatility in editing with a wide range of native media formats, and b) the similarity to – and viable replacement for – Final Cut Pro “legacy”. It picked up steam partly as a reaction to the Final Cut Pro X roll-out and users have generally been happy with that choice. While the shift by Adobe to a pure subscription model has been a roadblock for some (who stopped at CS6), it’s also been an advantage for others. I handle the software updates at a production company with nine edit systems and between the Adobe Creative Cloud and Apple Mac App Store applications, upgrades have never been easier.

A big criticism of Adobe has been Premiere’s stability. Of course, that’s based on forum reads, where people who have had problems will pipe up. Rarely does anyone ever post how uneventful their experience has been. I personally don’t find Premiere Pro to be any less stable than any other NLE or application. Nonetheless, working with a mix of oddball native media will certainly tax your system. Avid and Apple get around this by pushing optimized and proxy media. As such, editors reap the benefits of stability. And the same is true with Premiere. Working with consistent, optimized media formats (transcoded in advance) – or working with Adobe’s own proxies – results in a more stable project and a better editing experience.

Avid Media Composer is the dominant editing tool in major markets, but mainly in the long-form entertainment media space. Many of the top trailer and commercial edit shops in those same markets use Premiere Pro. Again, that goes back to the FCP7-to-Premiere Pro shift. Many of these companies had been using the old Final Cut rather than Media Composer. Since some of these top editors also cut features and documentaries, you’ll often see them use Premiere on the features that they cut, too. Once you get below the top tier of studio films and larger broadcast network TV shows, Premiere Pro has a much wider representation. That certainly is good news for Adobe and something for Avid to worry about.

Another criticism is that of Adobe’s development pace. Some users believed that moving to a subscription model would speed the development pace of new versions – independent of annual or semi-annual cycles. Yet cycles still persist – much to the disappointment of those users. This gets down to how software is actually developed, keeping up with OS changes, and to some degree, marketing cycles. For example, if there’s a big Photoshop update, then it’s possible that the marketing “wow” value of a large Premiere Pro update might be overshadowed and needs to wait. Not ideal, but that’s the way it is.

Just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean that users really want to constantly deal with automatic software updates that they have to keep track of. This is especially true with After Effects and Premiere Pro, where old project files often have to be updated once you update the application. And those updates are not backwards compatible. Personally, I’m happy to restrict that need to a couple of times a year.

Users have the fear that a manufacturer is going to end-of-life their favorite application at some point. For video users, this was made all too apparent by Apple and FCPX. Neither Apple nor Adobe has been exempt from killing off products that no longer fit their plans. Markets and user demands shift. Photography is an obvious example here. In recent years, smart phones have become the dominant photographic device, which has enabled cloud-syncing and storage of photos. Adobe and Apple have both shifted the focus for their photo products accordingly. If you follow any of the photo blogs, you’ll know there’s some concern that Adobe Lightroom Classic (the desktop version) will eventually give way completely to Lightroom CC (the cloud version). When a company names something as “classic”, you have to wonder how long it will be supported.

If we apply that logic to Premiere Pro, then the new Adobe Rush comes to mind. Rush is a simpler, nimbler, cross-platform/cross-device NLE targeted as users who produce video starting with their smart phone or tablet. Since there’s also a desktop version, one could certainly surmise that in the future Rush might replace Premiere Pro in the same way that FCPX replaced FCP7. Personally, I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Adobe treats certain software as core products. Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects are such products. Premiere Pro may or may not be viewed that way internally, but certainly more so now than ever in the past. Premiere Pro is being positioned as a “hub” application with connections to companion products, like Prelude and Audition. For now, Rush is simply an interesting offshoot to address a burgeoning market. It’s Adobe’s second NLE, not a replacement. But time will tell.

Apple Final Cut Pro X

Apple released Final Cut Pro X in the summer of 2011 – going on eight years now. It’s a versatile, professional tool that has improved greatly since that 2011 launch and gained a large and loyal fan base. Many FCPX users are also Premiere Pro users and the other way around. It can be used to cut nearly any type of project, but the interface design is different from the others, making it an acquired taste. Being a Mac-only product and developed within the same company that makes the hardware and OS, FCPX is optimized to run on Macs more so than any cross-platform product can be. For example, the fluidity of dealing with 4K ProRes media on even older Macs surpasses that of any other NLE.

Prognosticating Apple’s future plans is a fool’s errand. Some guesses have put the estimated lifespan of FCPX at 10 years, based in part on the lifespan of FCP “legacy”. I have no idea whether that’s true of not. Often when I read interviews with key Apple management (as well as off-the-record, casual discussions I’ve had with people I know on the inside), it seems like a company that actually has less of a concrete plan when it comes to “pro” users. Instead, it often appears to approach them with an attitude of “let’s throw something against the wall and see what sticks”. The 2013 Mac Pro is a striking example of this. It was clearly innovative and a stellar exhibit for Apple’s “think different” mantra. Yet it was a product that obviously was not designed by actually speaking with that product’s target user. Apple’s current “shunning” of Nvidia hardware seems like another example.

One has to ask whether a company so dominated by the iPhone is still agile enough to respond to the niche market of professional video editors. While Apple products (hardware and software) still appeal to creatives and video professionals, it seems like the focus with FCPX is towards the much broader sphere of pro video. Not TV shows and feature films (although that’s great when it comes) – or even high-end commercials and trailers – but rather the world of streaming channels, social media influencers, and traditional publishers who have shifted to an online media presence from a print legacy. These segments of the market have a broad range of needs. After all, so called “YouTube stars” shoot with everything from low-end cameras and smart phones all the way up to Alexas and REDs. Such users are equally professional in their need to deliver a quality product on a timetable and I believe that’s a part of the market that Apple seeks to address with FCPX.

If you are in the world of the more traditional post facility or production company, then those users listed above may be market segments that you don’t see or possibly even look down upon. I would theorize that among the more traditional sectors, FCPX may have largely made the inroads that it’s going to. Its use in films and TV shows (with the exception of certain high-profile, international examples) doesn’t seem to be growing, but I could be wrong. Maybe the marketing is just behind or it no longer has PR value. Regardless, I do see FCPX as continuing strong as a product. Even if it’s not your primary tool, it should be something in your toolkit. Apple’s moves to open up ProRes encoding and offering LumaForge and Blackmagic eGPU products in their online store are further examples that the pro customer (in whatever way you define “pro”) continues to have value to them. That’s a good thing for our industry.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

No one seems to match the development pace of Blackmagic Design. DaVinci Resolve underwent a wholesale transformation from a tool that was mainly a high-end color corrector into an all-purpose editing application. Add to this the fact that Blackmagic has acquired and integrated a number of companies, whose tools have been modernized and integrated into Resolve. Blackmagic now offers a post-production solution with some similarities to FCPX while retaining a traditional, track-based interface. It includes modes for advanced audio post (Fairlight) and visual effects (Fusion) that have been adapted from those acquisitions. Unlike past all-in-one applications, Resolve’s modal pages retain the design and workflow specific to the task at hand, rather than making them fit into the editing application’s interface design. All of this in a very short order and across three operating systems, thus making their pace the envy of the industry.

But a fast development pace doesn’t always translate into a winning product. In my experience each version update has been relatively solid. There are four ways to get Resolve (free and paid, Mac App Store and reseller). That makes it a no-brainer for anyone starting out in video editing, but who doesn’t have the specific requirement for one application over another. I have to wonder though, how many new users go deep into the product. If you only edit, there’s no real need to tap into the Fusion, Fairlight, or color correction pages. Do Resolve editors want to finish audio in Fairlight or would they rather hand off the audio post and mix to a specialist who will probably be using Pro Tools? The nice thing about Resolve is that you can go as deep as you like – or not – depending on your mindset, capabilities, and needs.

On the other hand, is the all-in-one approach better than the alternatives: Media Composer/Pro Tools, Premiere Pro/After Effects/Audition, or Final Cut Pro X/Motion/Logic Pro X? I don’t mean for the user, but rather the developer. Does the all-in-one solution give you the best product? The standalone version of Fusion is more full-featured than the Fusion page in Resolve. Fusion users are rightly concerned that the standalone will go away, leaving them with a smaller subset of those tools. I would argue that there are already unnecessary overlaps in effects and features between the pages. So are you really getting the best editor or is it being compromised by the all-in-one approach? I don’t know the answer to these questions. Resolve for me is a good color correction/grading application that can also work for my finishing needs (although I still prefer to edit in something else and roundtrip to/from Resolve). It’s also a great option for the casual editor who wants a free tool. Yet in spite of all its benefits, I believe Resolve will still be a distant fourth in the NLE world, at least for the next year.

The good news is that there are four great editing options in the lead and even more coming from behind. There are no bad choices and with a lower cost than ever, there’s no reason to limit your knowledge to only one. After all, the products that are on top now may be gone in a decade. So broaden your knowledge and define your skills by your craft – not your tools!

©2019 Oliver Peters

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Reflections

The 2018 Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year season is wrapping up as 2019 blasts in with new wonders, advances, and challenges. It’s this time of year when we can take a moment to look back. That gives me a chance to check out the stats on this blog – to thank the readers who have been following me for a while – and to welcome new readers who have discovered this little corner of the internet.

I started this blog a few years back as a place to offer some thoughts and tips and to give additional and often extended life to my writings for various trade publications. To date I have written 500 posts (this is 501), which have accumulated nearly 5 million total views. And over 1,000 of you have signed on to follow this blog. Thank you.

I started in this business working at a radio station during my senior year of high school and was hired as a full-time video editor when I finished college. Depending on when you want to start the count, that’s well over four decades in the industry. Most of that involves hands-on linear and nonlinear video editing, but it also includes work in sound, producing/directing, facilities design and management, workflow consultation, training, and color correction. In that time, I’ve seen manufacturers come and go, fall in and out of favor, and as a result, have worked with nearly two dozen different editing and color correction tools on paying gigs. Throughout all of that, I tend to think of myself first and foremost as an editor, but not necessarily an operator of any specific tool.

Editors are storytellers and those of the tips that I like to talk about most on this blog. They are constants that are more important than any specific software or hardware application. Of all the posts, my interviews with other working editors are those I enjoy the most. It’s a chance to learn and to see the same passion that others put into their work.

As we roll into 2019, I look forward to more projects that can be tackled with passion, while working with teams of other creative individuals. Here’s wishing you the same!

©2018 Oliver Peters

Edit Collaboration and Best Practices

There are many workflows that involve collaboration, with multiple editors and designers working on the same large project or group of projects. Let me say up front that if you want the best possible collaborative experience with multiple editors, then work with Avid Media Composer. Full stop. I have worked both sides of the equation and without a doubt, Media Composer connected to Avid Unity/Isis/Nexis shared storage is simply not matched by Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, or any other editing software/storage/cloud combination. Everything else is a compromise, which is why feature film and TV series editorial teams continue to select Avid solutions as their first choice.

In spite of that, there are many reasons to use other editing tools. I work most of the time in Adobe Premiere Pro CC and freelance at a shop with nine edit workstations connected to shared storage. We work mainly in Adobe Creative Cloud applications and our projects involve a lot of collaboration. Some of these are corporate videos that are frequently edited and revised by different editors. Some are entertainment shows, cut by a small editorial team focused on those shows. For some projects, Premiere Pro is the perfect tool. For others, we have to develop strategies to adapt Premiere to our workflow.

With that in mind, the following are tips and best practices that I’ll share for what has worked best for us over the past three years, while working on large projects with a team of editors. Although it applies to our work with Premiere Pro, the same would generally be true if we were working with Apple Final Cut Pro X instead.

Organization. We organize all projects into a specific folder structure, using a Post Haste template. All media files, like camera footage, audio, graphic elements, etc. go into common folders. Editors know where to look to find things. When new camera footage comes in, files are organized as “dailies” into specific folders by date, camera, and camera card. Non-pro formats, like GoPro and DSLR footage will be batch-renamed to reflect the project, date, and camera card. The objective is to have unique file names for each and every media file.

Optimized, transcoded, or proxy media. Depending on the performance and amount of media, you may need to do some prep work before even starting the edit process. Premiere and FCPX work well with some media formats and not with others. NAS/SAN storage is particularly taxing, especially once you get to resolutions greater than HD. If you want the most fluid experience in a shared workflow, then you will likely need to transcode proxy files from within the application. The reason to stay inside of FCPX or Premiere Pro is so that frame size offsets are properly tracked. Once proxies have been transcoded, it’s a simple matter of toggling between the proxy media (best playback performance) and full-resolution media (best image quality).

On the other hand, if you’d rather stick to full-resolution, native media, then some formats will have to be transcoded into “optimized” media. For instance, GoPro 4K footage is terrible to edit with natively. It should always be transcoded to ProRes or DNxHD before editing, if you don’t want to go the proxy route. This can be done inside or outside of the application and is an easy task with DaVinci Resolve, EditReady, Adobe Media Encoder, or Apple Compressor.

Finally, if you have image sequences from a drone or other source, forget trying to edit from these off of a network. Transcode them right away into some format of master movie file. I find Resolve to be the best tool for this. It’s fast and since these are often camera raw files, you can apply a base grade to them as a starting point for future color correction.

Break up your projects. Depending on the type and size of the job and number of editors working on it, you may choose to work in multiple Premiere projects. There may be a master file where all media is imported and initially organized. Then there may be multiple projects that are offshoots from this for component parts. In a corporate environment, it could be several different videos cut from a single, larger set of media. In a feature film, there could be different Premiere projects for each reel of the film.

Since Premiere Pro employs project locking, any project opened by one editor can also be opened in a read-only mode by other editors. Editors can have multiple Premiere projects open at one time. Thus, it’s simple to bring in elements from one project into another, even while they are all open. This workflow mimics Avid’s bin-locking strategy.

It helps to keep project files streamlined as progress on the production extends over time. You want to keep the number of sequences in any given project small. Periodically duplicate your project(s), strip out old sequences from the current project, and archive the older project files.

As a general note, while working to build the creative story edits – i.e. “offline editing” – you will want to keep plug-in filter effects to a minimum. In fact, it’s generally a good idea to keep the plug-in selection on each system small, so that all workstations in this shared environment are able to have the same set of installed plug-ins. The same is true of fonts.

Finishing stages of post. There are generally two paths in the finishing, aka “online editing” stage. Either all final color correction and assembly of effects is completed within Premiere Pro, or there is a roundtrip through a color correction application, like Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. The same holds true for audio, where a separate sound editor/designer/mixer may handle the finishing touches in Avid Pro Tools.

To accomplish an easy roundtrip with Resolve, create a sequence with all color correction and effects removed. Flatten the video to a single track (if possible), and remove the audio or do a simple stereo mixdown for reference. Ideally, media with mixed frame rates should be addressed as slow motion in the edited sequence. Avoid modifying the frame rate through any sort of “interpret” function within the application. Export an XML or AAF and send that and the associated media to Resolve. When color correction is complete, you can render the entire timeline at the sequence resolution as a single master file.

Conversely, if you want to send it back to Premiere Pro for final assembly and to complete the roundtrip, then render individual clips at their source resolution with handles of one to two seconds. Back in Premiere, re-apply titles, insert completed visual effects, and add any missing plug-in effects.

With audio post, there will be no roundtrip of elements, since the mixer will deliver a completed mixed stereo or surround track. This should be imported into Premiere (or Resolve if the final master is created in Resolve) and married back to the final video sequence. The mixer should also supply “stems” – the individual dialogue, music, and sound effects (D/M/E) submix tracks.

Mastering. Final sequences should be exported in a master file format (ProRes, DNxHD/HR, uncompressed) in at least two forms: 1) master with final mix and titles, and 2) textless submaster with split-track audio (multiple channels containing the D/M/E stems). All of these files are stored within the same job-based folder structure outlined at the top. It is quite common that future revisions will be made using the textless submaster rather than re-opening the full project, or that it may be used as source material in another edit.

Another aspect of finishing the project is media consolidation. This means taking the final sequence and generating a new project file from it. That file contained only those elements from the sequence, along with a copy of the media used, where each file has been trimmed to the portion within the sequence (plus handles). This is the Project Manager function in Premiere Pro. Unfortunately, Premiere is not consistently good at this task. Some formats will be properly trimmed, while others will be copied in their entirety. That’s OK for a :10 take, but a bummer when it’s a 30-minute interview.

The good news is that if you went through the Resolve roundtrip workflow and rendered individual clips, then effectively Resolve has already done media consolidation as a byproduct. In addition, if your source media is 4K, but you only finished in HD, the Resolve renders will be 4K. If in the future, you need to deliver the same master in 4K, everything is already set. Of course, that assumes that you didn’t do a lot of “punching in” and reframing in your edit sequence.

Cloud-based services. Often collaboration requires a distributed team, when not everyone is under one roof. While Adobe does offer cloud-based team editing methods, this doesn’t really work when editors are on different Creative Cloud accounts or when the collaboration is between an editor and a graphic designer/animator/VFX artist working in non-Adobe tools. In that case the old standbys have been Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive. Syncing is easy and relatively reliable. However, these are really just designed for sharing assets. But when this involves a couple of editors and each has a local, mirrored set of media, then simple sharing/syncing of only small project files makes for a working collaborative method.

Frame.io is the newbie here, with updated extension tools designed for in-application workspace panels within Final Cut Pro X, After Effects, and Premiere Pro. While they tout the ease of moving full-resolution media into their cloud, including camera files, I really wouldn’t recommend doing that. It’s simply not very practical on must projects. But for sharing cuts using a standard review-and-approach workflow, Frame.io definitely hits most of the buttons.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Building the Alternative Creative Toolkit

In the past, software was bought in a shrink-wrapped package with a single license to run the application on one computer. But trends change, with options today ranging from a one-time purchase, or a purchase plus a subscription for updates, all the way over to a total subscription model. While Adobe is the company most associated with the subscription model for creative software, nearly every company from Avid to Microsoft offers some variation of this. Software subscription makes a ton of sense for both the developer and the user, but it clearly is something that doesn’t suit everyone’s needs. If you want a comprehensive set of creative tools – but seek suggestions for alternatives to subscription – then look no further.

Productivity. The written side of production is as important as everything else. That means word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations often come first. The king of the hill has been Microsoft Office, but there are others. Still around and being updated by Corel is Wordperfect Office – one of the originals. Naturally you have Google Docs, but there are also plenty of others, such as OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and NeoOffice. Mac users have Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. These cover 90% of my needs, including very good compatibility with Microsoft Office documents. If your focus is structured creative writing, then you might also wish to check out Scrivener.

Design, graphics, and photography. It’s hard to find an exact replacement for Photoshop and Illustrator, but Serif comes the closest with its Affinity brand for Mac and Windows. Affinity Photo, Designer, and Publisher are solid substitutes with good levels of compatibility. But if your design tastes are more whimsical and artistic, then consider Pixelmator Pro (Mac) or Painter (Windows or Mac). If you need photo processing and manipulation, then Apple Photos, which is included with Macs, has become more potent in recent versions, although still targeted towards consumers. It’s not the industrial strength tool that is Adobe Lightroom Classic. If that’s your need and subscription is a no-go, then Capture One or ON1 seem to have captured many a photographer’s attention. Both include raw processing support and cataloging/organizing features.

Audio production and post. Avid Pro Tools is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to professional audio in studios and post houses. Offerings range from free to subscription to perpetual. But as an alternative, one of the most popular, full-featured tools for music creation, audio production, mixing, and post is Apple’s Logic Pro X. It’s a tool that just keeps getting better, with more virtual instruments and plug-ins being added with every version update. Naturally it’s only available for the Mac. If you are mainly a video editor and not a recording engineer, then another option would be Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, which has integrated the Fairlight audio toolset. This makes it viable as an audio-only application, as well as other post needs. However, other strong contenders are also still around, including Steinberg Nuendo, and Magix Vegas Pro and Sound Forge Pro. The latter two had been Sony Software products before Magix picked them up. While the Vegas products are considered video editing tools, they originally started life in audio and continue to be very viable audio post products. Sound Forge is an advanced single clip (up to 32 channels) audio editor that’s great for voice-over production, podcasts, and audio mastering.

Visual effects and motion graphics. If you love and really need Adobe After Effects, this is probably the one area where you won’t find a suitable equivalent. That’s fine, because Adobe offers attractive single-app licensing. While there are other options, simply none offer the depth of After Effects in a track/layer-based compositor. Apple has Motion, which is a great tool, but doesn’t tick all the boxes. Fusion and the Fusion page inside of DaVinci Resolve tackle composting by using nodes. So you work in a node-based, flowchart-style layout, rather than layers and tracks. All of these tools are powerful, but the switch from After Effects to Fusion or Motion require a complete mindset change, which most users aren’t interested in.

Editing. The best for last and in some ways, the category with the most options. Avid Media Composer continues its dominance for narrative broadcast and film editing. Like Pro Tools, there are free, perpetual, and subscription choices. Apple has been battling it out for mindshare with Final Cut Pro X, but of the group, it’s the one that is most different from a traditional NLE’s design and operation. Among the other solutions, you’ll find familiar names, including Grass Valley Edius, Magix Vegas Pro, DaVinci Resolve, and Lightworks. Even the venerable Media 100 (now owned by BorisFX) is still available for the Mac and for free!

Originally written for RedShark News

©2018 Oliver Peters

Preparing your Film for Distribution

First-time filmmakers are elated when their film finally gets picked up for distribution. But the hardest work may be next. Preparing your film and companion materials can be a very detailed and complex endeavor if you didn’t plan for it properly from the outset. While each distributor and/or network has slightly different specs, the general requirements are the same. Here are the more common ones.

1. Film master. Supplying a master file is self-evident, but the exact details are not consistent across the board. Usually some additional post will be required when you get distribution. You will need to add the distributor’s logo animation up front, make sure the first video starts at a specified timecode, and that you have audio channels in a certain configuration (see Item 2).

In spite of the buzz over 4K, many distributors still want 1920×1080 files at 23.98fps (or possibly 24.0fps) – usually in the Apple ProResHQ* video codec. The frame rate may differ for broadcast-oriented films, such as documentaries. In that case, 29.97fps might be required. Also, some international distributors will require 25.0fps. If you have any titles over the picture, then “textless” material must also be supplied. Generally, you can add those sections, such as the video under opening titles, at the end of the master, following the end credits of the film.

*Occasionally film festivals and some distributors will also require a DCP package instead of a single QuickTime or MXF master file.

2. Audio mixes and tracks. Stereo and/or 5.1 surround mixes are the most commonly requested audio configurations. You’ll often be asked to supply both the full mixes and the “stems”. The latter are separate submixes of only dialogue, sound effects, and music. Some distributors want these stems as separate files, while others want them attached to the master file. These are easy to supply if the film was originally mixed with that in mind. But if your mixer only produced a final mix, then it’s a lot harder to go back and get new stem tracks. A typical channel assignment on a delivery master is eight tracks for the 5.1 surround mix (L, R, C, LFE, Ls, Rs), the stereo mix (left, right), and a stereo M&E mix (combined music and effects, minus the dialogue).

3. Subtitles and captions. In order to be compliant with various accessibility regulations, you will likely have to supply closed captioning sidecar files that sync to your master. There are numerous formats and several NLEs allow you to create these. However, it’s far easier and usually more accurate to have a service create your files. There are numerous vendors, with prices starting as low as $1/minute. Closed captions should not be confused with subtitles, also called open captions. These appear on-screen and are common when someone is speaking in another language. Check with your distributor if this applies to you, because they may want the video without titles, in the event of international distribution.

4. Legal documentation. There’s a wide range of paperwork that you should be prepared to turn over. This includes licensing for any music and stock footage, talent releases, contracts, and deal memos. One important element is to be able to prove “chain-of-title”. You must be able to prove that you own the rights to the story and the film. Music is often a sticking point for indie filmmakers. If you used temp music or had a special deal for film festival showings, now is the time to pay up. You won’t get distribution until all music is clearly licensed. Music info should also include a cue sheet (song names, length, and position within the film).

5. Errors and omissions insurance. This is a catch-all policy you’ll need to buy to satisfy many distributors. It’s designed to cover you in the event that there’s a legal claim (frivolous or otherwise) against the film. For example, if someone comes out of the woodwork saying that you ripped them off and stole their story idea and that you now owe them money.

6. Trailer. Distributors often request a trailer to be used to promote the film. The preference seems to be that the trailer is under two minutes in length. It may or may not need to include the MPAA card at the front and should have a generic end tag (no “coming soon” or date at the end). Often a simple stereo mix will be fine, but don’t take that for granted. If you are going through full sound post anyway in creating a trailer, be sure to generate the full audio package – stereo and surround mixes and splits in various combinations, just like your feature film master.

7. Everything else. Beyond this list, you’ll often be asked for additional “nice to have” items. These include screeners (DVD or web), behind-the-scenes press clips or photos, frame grabs from the film, a final script, biographies of the creative team and lead actors, as well as a poster image.

As you can see, none of this seems terribly difficult if you are aware of these needs going in. But if you have prepared none of this in advance, it will become a mad scramble at the end to keep the distributor happy.

Originally written for RedShark News

©2018 Oliver Peters

Five Decades of Edit Suite Evolution

I spent last Friday setting up two new Apple iMac Pros as editing workstations. When I started as an editor in the 1970s, it was the early days of computer-assisted video editing. Edit suites (or bays) were intended for either “offline” editing with simple hardware, where creative cutting was the goal – or they were “online”, designed for finishing and used the most expensive gear. Sometimes the online bay would do double-duty for both creative and final post.

The minimum investment for such a linear edit suite would include three 2” videotape recorders, a video switcher (vision mixer), edit controller, audio mixer, and a small camera for titles and artwork. Suites were designed with creature comforts, since clients would often spend days at a time supervising the edit session. Before smart phones and the internet, clients welcomed the chance to get out of the office and go to the edit. Outfitting one of these edit suites would start at several hundred thousand dollars.

At my current edit gig, the company runs nine Mac workstations within a footprint that would have only supported three edit suites of the past, including a centralized machine room. Clients rarely come to supervise an edit, so the layout is more akin to the open office plan of a design studio. Editing can be self-contained on a Mac or PC and editors work in a more collegial, collaborative environment. There’s one “hero” room for when clients do decide to drop in.

In these five decades, computer-assisted editing has gone through four phases:

Phase 1 – Offline and online edit suites, primarily based on linear videotape technology.

Phase 2 – Nonlinear editing took hold with the introduction of Avid, EMC, Media 100, and Lightworks. The resolution was too poor for finishing, but the systems were ideal for the creative process. VTR-based linear rooms still handled finishing.

Phase 3 – As the quality improved, nonlinear systems could deliver finished masters. But camera acquisition and delivery was still centered on videotape. Nonlinear systems still had to be able to output to tape, which required specialized i/o hardware.

Phase 4 (current) – Editing is completely based around the computer. Most general-purpose desktop and even laptop computers are capable of the whole gamut of post services without the need for specialized hardware. That has become optional. The full shift to Phase 4 came when file-based acquisition and delivery became the norm.

This transition brought about a sea change in cost, workflow, facility design, and talent needs. It has been driven by technology, but also a number of socioeconomic factors.

1. Technology always advances. Computers get more powerful at a lower cost point. Moore’s Law and all that. Although our demands increase – SD, HD, 4K, 8K, and beyond – computers, so far, have not been outpaced. I can edit 4K today with an investment of under $10K, which was impossible in 1980, even with an investment of $500K or more. This cost reduction also applies to shared storage solutions (NAS and SAN systems). They are cheaper, easier to install, and more reliable than ever. Even the smallest production company can now afford to design editing around the collaboration of several editors and workstations.

2. The death of videotape came with the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan that disabled the Fukushima nuclear plant. A byproduct of this natural disaster was that it damaged the Sony videotape manufacturing plant, putting supplies of HDCAM-SR stock on indefinite backorder. This pointed to the vulnerability of videotape and hastened the acceptance of file-based delivery for masters by key networks and distributors.

3. Interactions with clients and human beings in general has changed – thanks to smartphones, personal computers, and the internet. While both good and bad, the result is a shift in our communication with clients. Most of the time, edit session review and approval is handled over internet services. Post your cut. Get feedback. Make your changes and post again. Repeat. Along with a smaller hardware footprint than in the past, this is one of the prime reasons that room designs have changed. You don’t need a big, comfortable edit suite designed for clients, if they aren’t going to come. A smaller room will do as long as your editors are happy and productive.

Such a transition isn’t new. It’s been mirrored in the worlds of publishing, graphic design, and recording studios. Nevertheless, it is interesting to look back at how far things have come. Naturally, some will view this evolution as a threat and others as filled with opportunities And, of course, where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.

All I know is that setting up two edit systems in a day would have been inconceivable in 1975!

Originally written for RedShark News

The hear a bit more about the changes and evolution of facilities, check out the Dec. 13th edition of the Digital Production Buzz. Click this link.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Editing and Music Composition

Editing and Music Composition

A nip is in the air and snow is falling in some regions. All signs of Fall and Winter soon to come. The sights, smells, and sounds of the season will be all around us. Festive events. Holiday celebrations. Joy. But no other season is so associated with memorable music to put us in the mood. That makes this a perfect time to talk about how video and film editing has intrinsic similarities with musical composition.

Fellow editor Simon Ubsdell has a lot of thoughts on the subject – perfect for one of my rare guest blog posts. Simon is Creative Director of Tokyo Productions, a London-based post-production shop specializing in trailers. Simon is multi-talented with experience in music, audio post, editing, and software development.

Grab a cup of holiday cheer and sit back for this enlightening read.

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Simon Ubsdell – Editing and Music Composition

There is a quote attributed to several different musicians, including Elvis Costello, Miles Davis, and Thelonius Monk, which goes: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture“. It sounds good and it seems superficially plausible, but I think it’s wrong on two levels. Firstly, a good choreographer would probably say that it’s perfectly possible to use dance to say something interesting about architecture and a good architect might well say that they could design a building that said something about dance. But I think it’s also unhelpful to imply that one art form can’t tell us useful things about another. We can learn invaluable lessons both from the similarities and the differences, particularly if we focus on process rather than the end result.

Instead, here’s Ingmar Bergman: “I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence.

Bergman is certainly not the only filmmaker to have made this observation and I think everyone can recognise the essential truth of it. However, what I want to consider here is not so much what film and music have in common as art forms, but rather whether the process of music composition can teach us anything useful about the process of film editing. As an editor who also composes music, I have found thinking about this to be useful in both directions.

In films you’ll often see a composer sitting down at a piano and laboriously writing a score one note after another. He bangs around until he finds one note and then he scribbles it into the manuscript; then he bangs around looking for the next one. Music composition is made to look like a sequential process where each individual note is decided upon (with some difficulty usually!) before moving on to the next. The reality is of course that music composition doesn’t work this way at all. So I’d like to look at some of the ways that one does actually go about writing a piece of music and how the same principles might apply to how we edit films. Because music is such a vast subject, I’m going to limit myself largely to the concepts of classical music composition, but the same overall ideas apply to whatever kind of music you might be writing in whatever genre.

What both music and film have in common is that they unfold over time: they are experienced sequentially. So the biggest question that both the composer and the editor need to address is how to organise the material across time, and to do that we need to think about structure.

Musical Structure

From the Baroque period onwards and even before, composers have drawn on a very specific set of musical structures around which to build their compositions. 

The Canon (as in Pachelbel’s famous example) is the repetition of the same theme over and over again with added ornamentation that becomes increasingly more elaborate. The Minuet and Trio is an A/B/A sandwich in which a theme is repeated (Minuet), but with a contrasting middle section (Trio). The Rondo is a repeated theme that alternates with multiple contrasting sections, in other words A/B/A/C/A/D, etc. The Theme and Variations sets out a basic theme and follows it with a series of elaborations in different keys, tempi, time signatures, and so on. 

Sonata Form, widely used for the opening movements of most symphonic works, is a much more sophisticated scheme, that starts by setting out two contrasting themes (the “1st and 2nd Subjects”) in two different keys (the “Exposition”), before moving into an extended section where those ideas undergo numerous changes and augmentations and key modulations (the “Development Section”), before returning to the original themes, both now in the home key of the piece (the “Recapitulation Section”), often leading to a final epilogue called the “Coda”. 

In all these cases the structure is built out of thematic and other contrasts, and contrast is a word I’m going to be coming back to repeatedly here, because it goes to the core of where music composition and editing come together.

Now the point of using musical structures of this kind is that the listener can form an idea of how the piece is unfolding even when hearing it for the first time. They provide a map that helps you orientate yourself within the music, so it doesn’t come across as just some kind of confused and arbitrary ramble across terrain that’s hard to read. Music that doesn’t come with signposts is not easy to listen to with concentration, precisely because you don’t know where you are. (Of course, the humble pop song illustrates this, too. We can all recognise where the verse ends and the chorus begins and the chorus repetitions give us clear anchor points that help us understand the structure. The difference with the kind of classical music I’m talking about is that a pop song doesn’t have to sustain itself for more than a few minutes, whereas some symphonies last well over an hour and that means structure becomes vastly more important.) 

What structure does is effectively twofold: on the one hand it gives us a sense of comprehensibility, predictability, even familiarity; and on the other hand it allows the composer to surprise us by diverging from what is expected. The second part obviously follows from the first. If we don’t know where we are, then we don’t know what to expect and everything is a constant surprise. And that means nothing is a surprise. We need familiarity and comprehensibility in order to be able to be surprised by the surprises when they come. Conversely, music that is wholly without surprises gets dull very quickly. Just as quickly as music that is all surprise, because again it offers us no anchor points. 

Editing Structure

So what comparisons can we draw with editing in terms of structure? Just as with our fictional movie “composer” sitting at the piano picking out one note after another, so you’ll find that many newcomers to editing believe that that’s how you put together a film. Starting at the beginning, you take your first shot and lay it down, and then you go looking for your next shot and you add that, and then the next one and the next one. Of course, you can build a film this way, but what you are likely to end up with is a shapeless ramble rather than something that’s going to hold the viewer’s attention. It will be the equivalent of a piece of music that has no structural markers and doesn’t give us the clues we need to understand where we are and where we are going. Without those cues the viewer quickly gets lost and we lose concentration. Not understanding the structure means we can’t fully engage with the film.

So how do we go about creating structure in our editing? Music has an inherently much more formal character, so in many ways the composer has an easier job, but I’d suggest that many of the same principles apply.

Light and Shade in Music

Music has so many easy to use options to help define structure. We have tempo – how fast or slow the music is at any one point. Rhythm – the manner in which accented notes are grouped with non-accented notes. Pitch – how high or low the musical sounds are. Dynamics – how loud or soft the music is, and how soft becomes loud and vice versa. Key – how far we have moved harmonically from the dominant key of the piece. Mode – whether we are experiencing the bright optimism of a major key or the sombre darkness of a minor key (yes, that’s a huge over-simplification!). Harmony – whether we are moving from the tension of dissonance to the resolution of consonance, or vice versa.

All of these options allow for contrasts – faster/slower, brighter/darker, etc. It’s out of those contrasts that we can build structure. For example, we can set out our theme in a bright, shiny major key with a sprightly rhythm and tempo, and then move into a slow minor key variation shrouded in mystery and suspense. It’s from those contrasts that we grasp the musical structure. And of course moving through those contrasts becomes a journey. We’re not fixed in one place, but instead we’re moving from light to dark, from peaceful to agitated, from tension to resolution, and so on. Music satisfies and nourishes and delights and surprises us, because it takes us on those journeys and because it is structured so that we experience change.

Light and Shade in Editing

So what are the editing equivalents? Let’s start with the easiest scenario and that’s where we are cutting with music. Because music has the properties we’ve discussed above, we can leverage those to give our films the same contrasts. We can change the pace and the mood simply by changing the pace and mood of the music we use. That’s easy and obvious, but very often overlooked. Far too many music-driven pieces are remorselessly monotonous, relying far too heavily for far too long on music of the same pace and mood. That very quickly dissipates the viewer’s engagement for the reasons we have talked about. Instead of feeling as though we are going on a journey of contrasts, we are stuck in one repetitive loop and it’s dull – and that means we stop caring and listening and watching. Instead of underscoring where the film is going, it effectively tells us that the film is going nowhere, except in circles.

(Editing Tip: So here’s a suggestion: if you’re cutting with pre-composed music, don’t let that music dictate the shape of your film. Instead cut the music so it works for you. Make sure you have changes of pace and intensity, changes of key and mode, that work to enhance the moments that are important for your film. Kill the music, or change it, or cut it so that it’s driving towards the moments that really matter. Master it and don’t let it master you. Far too often we see music that steamrolls through everything, obliterating meaning, flattening out the message – music that fails to point up what’s important and de-emphasise what is not. Be in control of your structure and don’t let anything dictate what you are doing, unless it’s the fundamental meaning you are trying to convey.

Footnote: Obviously what I’ve said here about music applies to the soundtrack generally. Sound is one of the strongest structural markers we have as editors. It builds tension and relaxation, it tells us where moments begin and end, it guides us through the shape of the film in a way that’s even more important than the pictures.)

And that brings me to a really important general point. Too many films feel like they are going in circles, because they haven’t given enough thought to when and how the narrative information is delivered. So many film-makers think it’s important to tell us everything as quickly as possible right up front.They’re desperate to make sure they’ve got their message across right here right now in its entirety. And then they simply end up recycling stuff we already know and that we care about less and less with each repetition. It’s a bit like a composer piling all his themes and all their variations into the first few bars (a total, unapproachable cacophony) and then being left with nothing new to say for the rest of the piece.

A far better approach is to break your narrative down into a series of key revelations and delay each one as long as you dare. Narrative revelations are your key structural points and you must cherish them and nurture them and give them all the love you can and they will repay you with enhanced audience engagement. Whatever you do, don’t throw them away unthinkingly and too soon. Every narrative revelation marks a way station on the viewer’s journey, and those way stations are every bit as crucial and valuable as their musical equivalents. They are the map of the journey. They are why we care. They are the hooks that make us re-engage.

Tension and Relaxation

This point about re-engagement is important too and its brings me back to music. Music that is non-stop tension is exhausting to listen to, just as music that is non-stop relaxation quickly becomes dull. As we’ve discussed, good music moves between tension and relaxation the whole time at both the small and the large scale, and that alternation creates and underpins structure. We feel the relaxation, because it has been preceded by tension and vice versa.

And the exact same principle applies to editing. We want the viewer to experience alternating tension and relaxation, moments of calm and moments of frenzied activity, moments where we are absorbing lots of information and moments where we have time to digest it. (Remember, Bergman talking about “inhalation and exhalation”.) Tension/relaxation applies at every level of editing, from the micro-level of the individual cuts to the macro level of whole scenes and whole sequences. 

As viewers we understand very well that a sudden burst of drama after a period of quiet is going to be all the more striking and effective. Conversely we know about the effect of getting our breath back in the calms that come after narrative storms. That’s at the level of sequences, but even within scenes, we know that they work best when the mood and pace are not constant, when they have corners and changes of pace, and their own moments of tension and relaxation. Again it’s those changes that keep us engaged. Constant tension and its opposite, constant relaxation, have the opposite effect. They quickly end up alienating us. The fact is we watch films, because we want to experience that varied journey – those changes between tension and relaxation.

Even at the level of the cut, this same principle applies. I was recently asked by a fellow editor to comment on a flashy piece of cutting that was relentlessly fast, with no shot even as long as half a second. Despite the fact that the piece was only a couple of minutes long, it felt monotonous very quickly – I’d say after barely 20 seconds. Whereas of course, if there had been even just a few well-judged changes of pace, each one of those would have hooked me back in and re-engaged my attention. It’s not about variety for variety’s sake, it’s about variety for structure’s sake.

The French have an expression: “reculer pour mieux sauter“, which roughly means taking a step back so you can jump further, and I think that’s a good analogy for this process. Slower shots in the context of a sequence of faster shots act like “springs”. When faster shots hit slower shots, it’s as if they apply tension to the spring, so that when the spring is released the next sequence of faster shots feels faster and more exciting. It’s the manipulation of that tension of alternating pace that creates exciting visceral cutting, not just relentlessly fast cutting in its own right.

Many great editors build tension by progressively increasing the pace of the cutting, with each shot getting incrementally shorter than the last. We may not be aware of that directly as viewers, but we definitely sense the “accelerated heartbeat” effect. The obvious point to make is that acceleration depends on having started slow, and deceleration depends on having increased the pace. Editing effects are built out of contrasts. It’s the contrasts that create the push/pull effect on the viewer and bring about engagement.

(Editing Tip: It’s not strictly relevant to this piece, but I wanted to say a few words on the subject of cutting to music. Many editors seem to think it’s good practice to cut on the downbeats of the music track and that’s about as far as they ever get. Let’s look at why this strategy is flawed. If our music track has a typical four beats to the bar, the four beats have the following strengths: the first, the downbeat, is the dominant beat; the third beat (often the beat where the snare hits) is the second strongest beat; then the fourth beat (the upbeat); and finally the second beat, the weakest of the four.

Cutting on the downbeat creates a pull of inertia, because of its weight. If you’re only ever cutting on that beat, then you’re actually creating a drag on the flow of your edit. If you cut on the downbeat and the third beat, you create a kind of stodgy marching rhythm that’s also lacking in fluid forward movement. Cutting on the upbeat, however, because it’s an “offbeat”, actually helps to propel you forward towards the downbeat. What you’re effectively doing is setting up a kind of cross-rhythm between our pictures and your music, and that has a really strong energy and flow. But again the trick is to employ variety and contrast. Imagine a drummer playing the exact same pattern in each bar: that would get monotonous very quickly, so what the drummer actually does is to throw in disruptions to the pattern that build the forward energy. He will, for example, de-emphasise the downbeat by exaggerating the snare, or he will even shift where the downbeat happens, and add accents that destabilise the four-square underlying structure. And all that adds to the energy and the sense of forward movement. And that’s the exact principle we should be aiming for when cutting to music.

There’s one other crucial, but often overlooked, aspect to this: making your cut happen on a beat is far less effective than making a specific moment in the action happen on a beat. That creates a much stronger sense of forward-directed energy and a much more satisfying effect of synchronisation overall. But that’s not to say you should only ever cut this way. Again variety is everything, but always with a view to what is going to work best to propel the sequence forward, rather than let it get dragged back. Unless, of course, dragging back on the forward motion is exactly what you want for a particular moment in your film, in which case, that’s the way to go.)

Building Blocks

You will remember that our fictional composer sits down at the piano and picks out his composition note by note. The implicit assumption there is that individual notes are the building blocks of a piece of music. But that’s not how composers work. The very smallest building block for a composer is the motif – a set of notes that exists as a tiny seed out of which much larger musical ideas are encouraged to grow. The operas of Wagner, despite notoriously being many hours long, are built entirely out of short motifs that grow through musical development to truly massive proportions. You might be tempted to think that a motif is the same thing as a riff, but riffs are merely repetitive patterns, whereas motifs contain within them the DNA for vast organic structures and the motifs themselves can typically grow other motifs.

Wagner is, of course, more of a exception than a rule and other composers work with building blocks on a larger scale than the simple motif. The smallest unit is typically something we call a phrase, which might be several bars long. And then again one would seldom think of a phrase in isolation, since it only really exists as part of larger thematic whole. If we look at this famous opening to Mozart’s 40th Symphony we can see that he starts with a two bar phrase that rises on the last note, that is answered by a phrase that descends back down from that note. The first phrase is then revisited along with its answering phrase – both shifted one step lower. 

But that resulting eight bars is only half of the complete theme, while the complete 1st Subject is 42 two bars long. So what is Mozart’s basic building block here? It most certainly isn’t a note, or even a phrase. In this case it’s something much more like a combination of a rhythm pattern (da-da-Da) and a note pattern (a falling interval of two adjacent notes). But built into that is a clear sense of how those patterns are able to evolve to create the theme. In other words, it’s complicated.

The fundamental point is that notes on their own are nothing; they are inert; they have no meaning. It’s only when they form sequences that they start to become music.

The reason I wanted to highlight this point is that I think it too gives us a useful insight into the editing process. The layperson tends to think of the single shot as being the basic building block, but just as single notes on their own are inert, so the single shot on its own (typically, unless it’s an elaborate developing shot) is lacking in meaning. It’s when we build shots into sequences that they start to take on life. It’s the dynamic, dialectical interplay of shots that creates shape and meaning and audience engagement. And that means it’s much more helpful to think of shot sequences as the basic building blocks. It’s as sequences that shots acquire the potential to create structure. Shots on their own do not have that quality. So it pays to have an editing strategy that is geared towards the creation and concatenation of “sequence modules”, rather than simply a sifting of individual shots. That’s a huge subject that I won’t go into in any more detail here, but which I’ve written about elsewhere.

Horizontal and Vertical Composition

Although the balance keeps shifting down the ages, music is both horizontal and vertical and exists in a tension between those aspects. Melody is horizontal – a string of notes that flows left to right across the page. Harmony is vertical – a set of notes that coexist in time. But these two concepts are not in complete opposition. Counterpoint is what happens when two or more melodies combine vertically to create harmony. The fugue is one of the most advanced expressions of that concept, but there are many others. It’s a truly fascinating, unresolved question that runs throughout the history of music, with harmony sometimes in the ascendant and sometimes melody.

Melody typically has its own structure, most frequently seen in terms of groups of four bars, or multiples of four bars. It tends to have shapes that we instinctively understand even when hearing it for the first time. Harmony, too, has a temporal structure, even though we more typically think of it as static and vertical. Vertical harmonies tend to suggest a horizontal direction of travel, again based on the notion of tension and relaxation, with dissonance resolving towards consonance. Harmonies typically point to where they are planning to go, although of course, just as with melody, the reason they appeal to us so much is that they can lead us to anticipate one thing and then deliver a surprise twist.

In editing we mostly consider only melody, in other words, how one shot flows into another. But there is also a vertical, harmonic component. It’s only occasionally that we layer our pictures to combine them vertically (see footnote). But we do it almost all the time with sound – layering sound components to add richness and complexity. I suppose one way of looking at this would be to think of pictures as the horizontal melody and the soundtrack as the vertical harmony, or counterpoint.

One obvious way in which we can approach this is to vary the vertical depth to increase and decrease tension. A sound texture that is uniformly dense quickly becomes tiresome. But if we think in terms of alternating moments where the sound is thickly layered and moments where it thins out, then we can again increase and decrease tension and relaxation.

(Footnote: One famous example of vertical picture layering comes in Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen is reading Kurz’ letter while the boat drives upstream towards the waiting horror. Coppola layers up gliding images of the boat’s passage in dissolves that are so long they are more like superimpositions – conveying the sense of the hypnotic, awful, disorientating journey into the unknowable. But again contrast is the key here, because punctuating that vertical layering, Coppola interjects sharp cuts that hit us full in the face: suspended corpses, the burning helicopter in the branches of a tree. The key thing to notice is the counterpoint between the hard cuts and the flowing dissolves/superimpositions. The dissolves lull us into an eery fugue-like state, while the cuts repeatedly jolt us out of it to bring us face to face with the horror. The point is that they both work together to draw us inexorably towards the climax. The cuts work, because of the dissolves, and the dissolves work because of the cuts.)

Moments

The moments that we remember in both music and films are those points where something changes suddenly and dramatically. They are the magical effects that take your breath away. There is an incredibly famous cut in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia that is a perfect case in point. Claude Rains (Mr. Dryden) and Peter O’Toole (Lawrence) have been having a lively discussion about whether Lawrence really understands how brutal and unforgiving the desert is going to be. O’Toole insists that “it’s going to be fun”. He holds up a lighted match, and we cut to a close-up as he blows it out. On the sound of him blowing, we cut to an almost unimaginably wide shot of the desert as the sun rises almost imperceptibly slowly in what feels like complete silence. The sudden contrast of the shot size, the sudden absence of sound, the abruptness of cutting on the audio of blowing out the match – all of these make this one of the most memorable moments in film history. And of course, it’s a big narrative moment too. It’s not just clever, it has meaning. 

Or take another famous moment, this time from music. Beethoven’s massive Choral Symphony, the Ninth, is best known for its famous final movement, the Ode to Joy, based on Schiller’s poem of the same name. The finale follows on from a slow movement of celestial tranquillity and beauty, but it doesn’t launch immediately into the music that everyone knows so well. Instead there is a sequence built on the most incredible dissonance, which Wagner referred to as “the terror fanfare”. Beethoven has the massed ranks of the orchestra blast out a phenomenally powerful fortissimo chord that stacks up all seven notes of the D minor harmonic scale. It’s as if we are hearing the foul demons of hatred and division being sent screeching back to the depths of hell. And as the echoes of that terrifying sound are still dying away, we suddenly hear the solo baritone, the first time in nearly an hour of music that we have heard a human voice: “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne“, “Friends, let us not hear these sounds”. And so begins that unforgettable ode to the brotherhood of all mankind.

The point about both the Lawrence of Arabia moment and the Beethoven moment is that in each case, they form giant pivots upon which the whole work turns. The Lawrence moment shows us one crazy Englishman pitting himself against the limitless desert. The Beethoven moment gives us one lone voice stilling the forces of darkness and calling out for something better, something to unite us all. These are not mere stylistic tricks, they are fundamental structural moments that demand our attention and engage us with what each work is really about.

I’m not suggesting that everything we cut is going to have moments on this kind of epic scale, but the principle is one we can always benefit from thinking about and building into our work. When we’re planning our edit, it pays to ask ourselves where we are going to make these big turning points and what we can do with all the means at our disposal to make them memorable and attention-engaging. Our best, most important stuff needs to be reserved for these pivotal moments and we need to do everything we can to do it justice. And the best way of doing that, as Beethoven and David Lean both show us, is to make everything stop.

When the Music Stops

Arguably the greatest composer ever has one of my favourite ever quotes about music: “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” Mozart saw that the most magical and profound moments in music are when the music stops. The absence of music is what makes music. To me that is one of the most profound insights in art.

From an editing point of view, that works, too. We need to understand the importance of not cutting, of not having sound, of not filling every gap, of creating breaths and pauses and beats, of not rushing onto the next thing, of allowing moments to resonate into nothingness, of stepping away and letting a moment simply be.

The temptation in editing is always to fill every moment with something. It’s a temptation we need to resist wherever we can. Our films will be infinitely better for it. Because it’s in those moments that the magic happens.

Composing and Editing with Structure

I hope by now you’ll agree with me about the fundamental importance of structure in editing. So let’s come back to our original image of the composer hammering out his piece of music note by note, and our novice editor laying out his film shot by shot.

It should be obvious that a composer needs to pre-visualise the structure of the piece before starting to think about the individual notes. At every level of the structure he needs to have thought about where the structural changes might happen – both on a large and small scale. He needs to plan the work in outline: where the key changes are going to happen, where the tempo shifts from fast to slow or slow to fast, where the tension escalates and where it subsides, where the whole orchestra is playing as one and where we hear just one solitary solo line. 

It goes without saying that very few composers have ever plotted out an entire work in detail and then stuck rigidly to the plan. But that’s not the point. The plan is just a plan until a better one comes along. The joy of composition is that it throws up its own unexpected surprises, ideas that grow organically out of other ideas and mushroom into something bigger, better and more complex than the composer could envisage when starting out. But those ideas don’t just shoot off at random. They train themselves around the trelliswork of the original structure. 

As I’ve mentioned, classical composers have it easy, because they can build upon pre-conceived structures like Sonata Form and the rest.  As editors we don’t have access to the same wealth of ready-built conventions, but we do have a few. 

One of the structures that we very frequently call upon is the famous three-act structure. It works not only for narrative, but for pretty much any kind of film you can think of. The three-act structure does in fact have a lot in common with Sonata Form. Act One is the Exposition, where we set out the themes to be addressed. Act Two is the Development Section, where the themes start to get complicated and we unravel the problems and questions that they pose. And Act Three is the Recapitulation (and Coda), where we finally resolve the themes set out in Act One. Almost anything you cut at whatever length can benefit from being thought of in these structural terms: a) set out your theme or themes; b) develop your themes and explore their complexities; c) resolve your themes (or at least point to ways in which they might be resolved). And make sure your audience is aware of how those sections break down. As an editor who has spent a lot of my working life cutting movie trailers, I know that every experienced trailer editor deploys three-act structure pretty much all the time and works it very hard indeed.

 Of course, scripted drama comes into the cutting room with its own prebuilt structure, but the script is by no means necessarily the structural blueprint for the finished film. Thinking about how to structure what was actually shot (as against what was on the page) is still vitally important. The originally conceived architecture might well not actually function as it was planned, so we can’t simply rely on that to deliver a film that will engage as it should. The principles that we’ve discussed of large scale composition, of pace, of contrast, of rhythm, and so on are all going to be useful in building a structure that works for the finished film.

Other kinds of filmmaking rely heavily on structural planning in the cutting room and a huge amount of work can go into building the base architecture. And it really helps if we think of that structural planning as more than simply shifting inert blocks into a functional whole. If we take inspiration from the musical concepts described here, we can create films that breathe a far more dynamic structural rhythm, that become journeys through darkness and light, through tension and relaxation, between calm and storm, journeys that engage and inspire.

Conclusion

Obviously this is just an overview of what is in reality a huge subject, but what I want to stress is that it really pays to be open to thinking about the processes of editing from different perspectives. Music, as a time-based art form, has so many useful lessons to draw from, both in terms of large scale architecture and small scale rhythms, dynamics, colours, and more. And those lessons can help us to make much more precise, refined and considered decisions about editing practice, whatever we are cutting.

– Simon Ubsdell

For more of Simon’s thoughts on editing, check out his blog post Bricklayers and Sculptors.

© 2018 Simon Ubsdell, Oliver Peters