The race to the bottom

Whenever a group of established professionals in the business gets together, they bemoan the “race to the bottom”. That’s the concept that simpler, more inexpensive tools result in the lowering of quality. The prevailing attitude is that now “anyone can do it” so no one “values the craft”. Editors complain about what low-cost editing software like Final Cut Pro has done to facilities. Directors of photography complain about the Canon 5D or the Blackmagic Cinema Camera and how these are killing quality production. Colorists complain about the impact of free color grading tools, like DaVinci Resolve Lite on their ability to earn a living.

I’m sure this is echoed in other industries. Whether you are talking about multitrack audio decks versus Pro Tools, or vinyl records versus CDs versus iTunes, or the work of a talented machinist compared to “fab labs” and 3D printing – the theme (and fear) is the same. That is, that these trends bring more users into the field and I/we/my company will go out-of-business. I won’t argue the result, because disruptive technologies do displace workers and do change the dynamics of cost. In fact, at my first paid editing gig after college in the mid-70s, the company billed $275/hour for editing time. That was with three quad VTRs, a switcher and audio mixer, edit controller and two black-and-white title card cameras. All analogue, no character generator, no digital video effects manipulation (ADO, K-scope, A-53, etc.). Bare bones. Today, you’d be hard pressed to pay more than $175/hour for most NLE suites with editor. That’s a room with an order-of-magnitude more features than the typical mid-70s edit suite, for a lot less. And that’s not even accounting for the change in the value of money over four decades!

I view the technology of our business as more of a bell curve than a slide down from the top. When film production and post was the norm, the cost of the tools was relatively cheap. Yes, a film camera and Moviola or KEM were expensive, precision mechanical products, but they were within the grasp of a sole entrepreneur to own. With the introduction and expansion of video production and post, the industry diverted to a three-decades-long love of the next biggest-baddest box. In the heyday of the linear digital suite, a decked-out room was a million-dollar investment. Facilities marketed themselves based on the hardware, rather than the talent at the controls.

Then we started moving down from the top of the curve and many of those same facilities never survived. That “race to the bottom” started with Avid, Lightworks, Media 100 and EMC2, who introduced digital NLEs that were built around affordable, desktop systems. As expensive as they were at the time, they were significantly less costly than the linear suite of the day or even other first-generation nonlinear systems. One of the early NLEs that was used extensively in episodic television offline editing was the Ediflex. It used 12 industrial-grade VHS decks to mimic random access. You could only lease them in Los Angeles, but being in Orlando, the post house I was with considered the purchase of four systems. The asking price was $250K each, so we continued leasing. Ultimately the company went belly-up and the four systems we were leasing weren’t worth the shipping cost and so ultimately ended up on the scrap heap. The Ediflex was done in by the success of the desktop NLEs, like Avid, which ushered in widespread nonlinear post. Following the technology advances of all other computing and software trends, quality improved, cost dropped, operation was easier and performance and capacity became better. Final Cut Pro was simply a new stop on this ride.

Many of my fellow editors equate software complexity with professional. Maybe it’s a macho thing. If software takes an effort to understand and use, it must be inherently better than one which is simpler, even though the end result might be identical. Yet, all professional software developers are embracing simpler UIs that feature more unified controls, presets and templates. It’s not just the post industry. As I can attest from meetings I’ve attended, this is the over-riding software development direction taken in other fields, too, such as the engineering and CAD products from Autodesk, Solidworks and similar companies. Software can be both easy and deep (when needed) and that’s a design direction across-the-board. This is enabled by the fact that the under-the-hood processes required for the hidden magic are easy to run on most modern, off-the-shelf desktop and laptop computers. They finally have the necessary horsepower.

As tools get cheaper and easier to use, pros fret that the proverbial “YouTubers” and the “editor in his bedroom” will put them out of business. And yes, ease of use and low cost-of-entry do mean that there’s more competition. It also means that your clients will often decide to tackle the post on a job by themselves. All of this is true, but it’s the nature of technological change. We’ve seen it before in desktop publishing and photography. Some folks went out of business and some embraced the change and figured out how to thrive. After all, FCP X at $299 benefits the working pro just as much as the up-and-comer. This is especially true considering that FCP X is well-suited for the next wave of technology change in post – namely 2K and 4K frame sizes and higher frame rates, such as 1080p/59.94.

In most cases (though, unfortunately not in all) – the cream will rise to the top. The Canon 5D and RED One are good examples. These cameras lowered the needed investment to shoot high-end footage. In the hands of a talented DP, each camera can yield superb results. Likewise, in the hands of a wannabe who hasn’t learned the basics, they can also produce crap. Why? Simply put, the basics are still the most important. Lighting, lens selection, camera movement, focus, art direction, etc. These all contribute to the difference between art and junk. Believe it or not, most clients actually can see the difference. Sometimes they don’t know why. Sometimes they don’t need the difference. Sometimes they don’t want to pay for the difference. That’s why we as professionals need to continue to educate clients on the value that we bring to the project and NOT the value that our tools bring.

This isn’t always an easy sell, but it’s what makes good writers, directors, record producers, musicians and others successful. Joe Satriani, Steve Vai or Eric Johnson would sound as good on any guitar they played. A movie cut by Walter Murch, Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter or Pietro Scalia would be just as good, regardless of the edit software at their disposal.

© 2012 Oliver Peters

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