Rise of the Preditor

Producer + Editor = Preditor. It’s a word that seems to generate derision from many traditional, professional editors. The concept that one person can and should handle all of the aspects of post is characterized as a “jack-of-all-trades and a master of none”. While that may be true, it doesn’t change the fact that many news operations, reality TV shops and broadcast creative services departments are adopting the model. That’s based on the concept that producers and editors can merge job skills and that the combined role can be handled by a single individual.

What is often described as a “professional editor” is really a concept that only applies to Hollywood, unionized workplaces or to the short slice of time when linear videotape editing was the norm. During the 1970s – 1990s, video post production was handled in very expensive edit suites. The editors originally came out of the engineering ranks and were considered more technical than creative, since part of their job was making sure that broadcast standards were met.

This evolved and attitudes changed around the introduction of Avid’s original nonlinear systems. These early units were quite expensive, so although the editor roles were creative, the business model didn’t change much from the linear operations. With the entry of Apple Final Cut Pro, the last decade or so has been viewed by many as a “race to the bottom”. The tools are cheaper than ever and it is perceived that no specialized skills are needed to operate the editor’s toolkit.

If you look at this outside of the scope of major film productions or those three decades and go back to the way standard small-to-medium market film production was handled before the ‘70s, you will see that the concept of a preditor actually predates the modern video world. In fact, most filmmakers would have been considered preditors. In the days when every commercial, corporate film (then called “industrials”), news story or documentary was shot and posted on film, it was quite common for the cinematographer, editor, director and producer to be the same person. They required a lab for some of the finishing services, but by and large, one person – or a very small team – handled many of the roles.

Many TV stations had an in-house “special projects” producer, who was often a one-man-band filmmaker doing small feature pieces or investigative journalism. The days of a news reporter/photographer driving around with a Canon Scoopic or Bolex 16mm film camera on the front seat are not that far removed from the modern video journalist shooting with a small handheld video camera and cutting a story with FCP on his laptop. I see this model proliferating throughout the video production world. I would suggest the concept of the “traditional professional” is in decline – to be replaced in larger numbers by the “new professional”. That’s who Apple and Adobe are servicing in the development of Final Cut Studio and the Creative Suite. Clearly it’s the focus of Final Cut Pro X.

Avid, Autodesk and Quantel are still trying to hang on to the old definitions and make their margins on the niche that is still working in that space. The larger fortunes are in addressing the needs of the “new professional” – the preditor. After all, if you define “professional” by the delivery of the end product (documentaries, broadcast news, sports, commercials) – rather than by the number of years a person has worked in a specialized position – then is the person who put it together any less professional than an experienced, seasoned pro?

This is even true in the feature film world. The Coen brothers have received several nominations for best editing Oscars. I’d bet they don’t view their knowledge of Final Cut as being at the same level as a so-called “professional” editor who might be an expert in manipulating the software. Yet, I doubt anyone would consider them as anything other than film professionals and talented editors.

Clearly my heart is on the side of the seasoned pro and I do think that in many cases that editor will deliver a better product. But in the end, I’ve seen enough compelling pieces edited by less skilled individuals who had a great vision. I suppose you can call that “good enough”, though I contend that’s really the wrong way to look at it.

So in this new model, what sort of technical skills should a person have? What advice is there for people about to enter college, are now in a college program or early in their career? First, I would offer that many college “digital media” programs are probably a better starting point than the more traditional “film programs”. Of course, that’s not a blanket statement, as many schools are adjusting their curriculum to stay relevant.

A model I see popping up a lot is that of a hands-on producer who shoots his or her own projects. Typically this is with HDSLR, P2 or XDCAM camcorders. The editing tool of choice is Final Cut – although in many instances, FCP is only used for a basic rough cut for the base layer of video. Then the project is actually finished in After Effects. You would think that Motion with FCP or Premiere Pro with After Effects would be the better choices. Although true, many shops decided on FCP a while back and Premiere Pro has yet to achieve similar street credibility as a professional editing tool. Likewise, Motion never gained the sort of commercial success that After Effects has.

If you are trying to plan out your future – regardless of your age – these are the five skill sets you need to master for success as a “new video professional”:

Producing – Learn everything you can about project organization, budgeting, directing talent and, in general, running an efficient location shoot or studio set.

Production/camera – Learn to be a one-man-band on location and in the studio. If you have a crew – great. But, you personally need to understand lighting, sound and the basics of cinematography. With the new file-based technology, this includes camera-specific data wrangling functions, whether that’s RED, P2 or something else.

Editing – Learn Final Cut Pro and Final Cut Studio inside and out. Don’t stop at editing. Make sure you know how to use Color for grading and Soundtrack Pro for mixing. Make sure you extend that learning to Final Cut Pro X. Don’t limited your skills to this one tool. Schedule learning excursions to Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro, Grass Valley EDIUS and others.

Finishing/graphics – Since After Effects is the tool of choice for many, you really need to understand how this application works and how to get from FCP (or another NLE) to AE and back.

Encoding/delivery – This is the last stage and more delivery is file-based than ever before. You no longer have a duplication technician or VTR operator to fall back on. It’s just you. So this means you need to understand how to encode for the web, DVD, Blu-ray and various other client deliverables.

Whether you view the “new video professional” as the modern preditor or the filmmaker of five decades ago, it’s the same basic concept. What was old is new again. No need to complain. Time to learn, adapt and grow! Or get out of the business and run an ice cream truck!

©2011 Oliver Peters