(Note: I originally wrote this in 2002 and have updated it slightly for this post. The challenges discussed that were true in 2002 are still true today.)
What usually comes to mind when people think about editing on location is the coverage of late–breaking news, like the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, or a major sporting event, like the Olympics. In reality, many editors earn their income by editing on the road for many different types of shows and events. We’ve all read that much of CBS’ Survivor series was cut on location, and we probably all realize that most weekend sporting events have some type of edit setup for “roll–ins” that are run during the event. What about the typical corporate convention, with all those various “happy faces” videos? Some editor spent all night cutting in a hotel room to be ready for the next day’s breakfast meeting. Most feature films start their edit on location to make sure all the coverage works, before the crew moves on and the sets get struck. There are as many different types of location edit set ups as there are different applications and all pose unique challenges for the editor. I asked a number of current and former editors to share their stories from the road.
Weather and environmental conditions pose a problem for location crews, but are a factor for the editor, as well. Mike Nann, who most recently has been in product marketing for Leitch and Digital Rapids, used to work as a traveling editor for a race team on a prominent auto racing circuit. “One of the races was at a temporary street course in the middle of a city and an edit bay was set up in a ‘canopy’ environment. It had one side open for direct visibility of the racetrack. One day during race preparations it rained, soaking the ground. I remember kneeling on empty Betacam tape cases while setting up the equipment, just to keep dry.”
Tim Shank, an editor/producer for Columbia Pictures Publicity spent his share of time on location in Georgia, cutting the series, In The Heat Of The Night. “The worst location was in a couple of trailers salvaged from a construction site located next to a soundstage/warehouse. The air–conditioning couldn’t keep up with the heat the equipment generated. Dust from the gravel parking lot constantly swirled through the air and every afternoon the power would go out because of nearby thunderstorms. When it rained at our location, we had to cover the consoles with plastic because the roofs leaked.”
These environmental concerns bring up the issues of power, heating and proper air–conditioning – things we tend to take for granted when editing in a nice comfy edit suite. The equipment may be okay, but human accommodations often leave a lot to be desired. Points that our editors raised included complaints about proper monitoring, lighting and space. In a word – ergonomics. Tim Shank spelled this out pretty clearly. “There seems to be an unwritten rule about the field – ‘editors don’t like windows and feel uncomfortable if it isn’t stuffy or the air-conditioner doesn’t blow down the back of their neck’. The corollary is – ‘the smaller the room, the better’. It takes a lot of persuasion to get enough space for a couple of tape shelves, let alone seating for producers and directors during the final tweak stages.”
“Current NLE systems aren’t as fussy about their environment as past models, but many producers and production managers still don’t allow a margin of error when picking a spot for editors to work. Air–conditioning suitable for an office environment is quickly overwhelmed, as are the one or two power outlets in a given office. Usually, the sole light source is a couple of fluorescent tubes in just the right place to glare off the monitors, forcing the editor to bring in more directional lights – which add to the heat load of the room. If you live in an area with summer thunderstorms, plan on frequent shut-downs unless the dealer or rental house provided more than the usually ‘office supply store’ variety of back–up power systems [UPS].”
Joe Brown, who has supplied his editing talents and NLE systems to ABC Sports, states that, “My biggest complaint is the chair. It’s tough editing for eighteen hours in a folding chair. I really miss my leather couch and comfortable chair. You don’t always have the best setup, but that’s the way it is with mobile work, and how you deal with it separates the men from the boys on the road.” Another common complaint had to be the long hours. Brown comments, “Since the crew is traveling, there’s no option of having two editors, so I usually work both shifts.” Shank adds, “In a facility, there seems to be greater awareness that the clock is ticking and each minute is adding to the bill. If you are cutting in a client’s office space on their system, your invoice is the only charge that changes when more hours of work are needed. There is a lot more pressure to work around the clock, with no other staff editors that can be called in after twenty or thirty hours.”
Battery-powered news edit
Clearly location editing has benefited from the advances in technology, which have made equipment easier, lighter and able to take more abuse. Joe Torelli, who has held product marketing and engineering positions with Avid, Quantel and now Apple, spent his time in the trenches with NBC News in such front line areas as Nicaragua in the early 1980’s. Out of necessity, Joe assembled what he claims to be the first battery–powered edit system consisting of two Sony BVU–110 portable U–Matic ENG video recorders. These were the first field decks which permitted clean, back–space assemble editing. “We were in a Lear Jet somewhere over the Caribbean or Cuba. Correspondent Phil Bremen would record his narration on a Pearlcorder and I would mark cue points on his script at the edit points. Then I edited all audio onto channel two. Next, I’d cue the countdown tape and hard record down to the four, three, two, count silently to zero and PAUSE. Cue up the first shot, play it, release pause on the recorder VTR, watch the counter to :04. PAUSE. All natural sound levels were dropped. Soundbite levels were left full. Remember – if I made any mistakes, I would have to start over.”
“We landed at Miami International at 6:05pm and found a quiet part of the charter area at MIA. I cued Bremen when to speak and he laid down his new higher quality track onto channel one in the audio dub mode, while cueing himself with playback on the Pearlcorder to keep the timing accurate. I played it back once, making sure it worked – and I wasn’t in Preview…. hah! At 6:25pm I put the tape in the feed deck and sent the story to NBC Nightly News in New York. John Chancellor did the intro and our piece rolled. Whew! That was in January 1981 and one of the reasons I have fought so hard inside of Avid for the development of the laptop NewsCutter.”
Laptops running edit software like Final Cut Pro, Media Composer/Newcutter and EDIUS have made life easier for the editor on the go. As Tim Shank points out, “I started using Final Cut Pro just to rough out shows before finishing on an Avid Symphony. As the workload grew, I started finishing on the FCP system. I still like the Symphony, but I can do the same work on the lower-cost system (although it takes longer), and Final Cut Pro is much more portable. I have a friend that edits on a laptop, and that is quickly becoming a more common sight with all the advantages it offers to the location editor.”
Brad Swenson, formerly with post–production product marketing at Fast and later Pinnacle, says he really loves working with his laptop. “Standard laptops offer the best overall option for field editing. They are replaceable nearly worldwide. If a system uses specialized hardware or components, you can safely assume it is not field serviceable in a remote or underdeveloped part of the world. Software on a CD, a IEEE–1394 (Firewire) I/O card (or even built into the laptop) and a security dongle is all that you need. Certainly proprietary systems have some unique advantages, and I am not saying that they easily break; however, with Murphy’s laws still in effect worldwide, a production is safer when non-proprietary systems are used in harsh environments.”
Laptops aren’t the only compact location solution. Several manufacturers offer a luggable solution, in which the internal components of an edit system (CPU, drives and boards) are reconfigured into a “hardened” shipping case. Luggables are often popular with military clients because of the harsh environments presented by training and battlefield conditions.
Mike Nann describes it this way. “Laptop systems provide the ultimate in portability and power flexibility, but their very nature creates some compromises, such as real–time functionality and the I/O format, which is usually DV. This can be a serious limitation if you have a variety of camera sources at your disposal, ranging from the official international broadcast feed to analog field tapes. The flexibility of easily being able to ingest footage from all of these different sources without sacrificing quality just isn’t there on a laptop.”
Not all of life on the road has to be that tough. A more pleasant solution I ran across was offered by Highway Definition, who operated a high-def Final Cut edit suite inside a luxury motor coach. Dave Cox, President of Highway Definition spells out the advantages. “Being self–contained, we have had no problems with any type of power source to date. If necessary, our system will run on house batteries. As I type this, I am sitting in our mobile unit with the air conditioner running, television on CNBC and drinking cold water from the refrigerator. Our unit was designed to keep the original integrity of the luxury coach, yet incorporates a full HD and SD editing area with the ability to seat seven people comfortably and view a session. The convenience of having everyone together and intimately involved in the project, while being accessible to the editor and each other is a real plus. Production teams can check video before wrapping the set, reshoot segments as necessary, and begin editing on the spot. The editor can stay right on the bus over night, if necessary, and actually enjoy the experience.”
So what words of wisdom do our road warriors have for you? First of all, make sure you have adequate power protection in the form of beefy power conditioners and UPS systems. Make sure you have on–call technical support from the system supplier or rental house. Bring your own tools if you use special software, such as for graphics creation. Remember to bring headphones so that you can actually hear the mix you are attempting to perform, when working in a noisy environment. Finally, never let the pressures of deadlines affect the quality of your work.
Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)