To answer that, let’s step back to film. Up until the 1970s dramatic television shows, feature films, and documentaries were shot and post-produced on film. The film lab would print positive copies (work print) of the raw negative footage. Then a team of film editors and assistants would handle the creative edit of the story by physically cutting and recutting this work print until the edit was approved. This process was often messy with many film splices, grease pencil marks on the work print to indicate dissolves, and so on.
Once a cut was “locked” (approved by the director and the execs) the edited work print and accompanying notes and logs were turned over to the negative cutter. It was this person’s job to match the edits on the work print by physically cutting and splicing the original camera negative, which up until then was intact. The negative cutter would also insert any optical effects created by an optical house, including titles, transitions, and visual effects.
Measure twice, cut once
Any mistakes made during negative cutting were and are irreparable, so it is important that a negative cutter be detail-oriented, precise, and works cleanly. You don’t want excess glue at the splices and you don’t want to pick up any extra dirt and dust on the negative if it can be avoided. If a mistaken cut is made and you have to repair that splice, then at least one frame is lost from that first splice.
A single frame – 1/24th of a second – is the difference in a fight scene between a punch just about to enter the frame and the arm passing all the way through the frame. So you don’t want a negative cutter who is prone to making mistakes. Paul Hirsch, ACE points out in his book A long time ago in a cutting room far, far away…. that there’s an unintentional jump cut in the Death Star explosion scene in the first Star Wars film, thanks to a negative cutting error.
In the last phase of the film post workflow, the cut negative goes to the lab’s color timer (the precursor to today’s colorist), who sets the “timing” information (color, brightness, and densities) used by the film printer. The printer generates an interpositive version of the complete film from the assembled negative. From this interpositive, the lab will generally create an internegative from which release prints are created.
From the lab to the linear edit bay
This short synopsis of the film post-production process points to where we started. By the mid-1970s, video post-production technology came onto the scene for anything destined for television broadcast. Material was still shot on film and in some cases creatively edited on film, as well. But the finishing aspect shifted to video. For example, telecine systems were used to transfer and color correct film negative to videotape. The lab’s color timing function was shifted to this stage (before the edit) and was now handled by the telecine operator, who later became known as a colorist.
If work print was generated and edited by a film editor, then it was the video editor’s job to match those edits from the videotapes of the transferred film. Matching was a manual process. A number of enterprising film editors worked out methods to properly compute the offsets, but no computerized edit list was involved. Sometimes a video offline edit session was first performed with low-res copies of the film transfer. Other times producers simply worked from handwritten timecode notes for selected takes. This video editing – often called online editing and operated by an online editor – was the equivalent to the negative cutting stage described earlier. Simpler projects, such as TV commercials, might be edited directly in an online edit session without any prior film or offline edit.
Into the digital era
Over time, any creative editing previously done on film for television projects shifted to videotape edit systems and later to digital nonlinear edit systems (NLEs), such as Avid and Lightworks. These editors were referred to as offline editors and post now followed a bifurcated process know as offline and online editing. This was analogous to film’s work print and negative cutting stages. Likewise, telecine technology evolved to not only perform color correction during the film transfer process, but also afterwards working from the assembled master videotape as a source. This process, known as tape-to-tape color correction, gave the telecine operator – now colorist – the tools to perform better shot matching, as well as to create special looks in post. With this step the process had gone full circle, making the video colorist the true equivalent of the lab’s color timer.
As technology marched on, videotape and linear online edit bays gave way to all-digital, NLE-based facilities. Nevertheless, the separation of roles and processes continued. Around 2000, Avid came in with its Symphony model – originally a separate product and not just a software option. Avid Symphony systems offered a full set of color-correction tools and the ability to work in uncompressed resolutions.
It became quite common for a facility to have multiple offline edit bays using Avid Media Composer units staffed by creative, offline editors working with low-res media. These would be networked to an Avid shared storage solution. In addition, these facilities would also have one or more Avid Symphony units staffed by online editors.
A project would be edited on Media Composer until the cut was locked. Then assistants would ingest high-res media from files or videotape, and an online editor would “conform” the edit with this high-res media to match the approved timeline. The online editor would also handle Symphony color correction, insert visual effects, titles, etc. Finally, all tape or file deliverables would be exported out of the Avid Symphony. This system configuration and workflow is still in effect at many facilities around the world today, especially those that specialize in unscripted (“reality”) TV series.
The rise of the desktop systems
Naturally, there are more software options today. Over time, Avid’s dominance has been challenged by Apple Final Cut Pro (FCP 1-7 and FCPX), Adobe Premiere Pro, and more recently Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. Systems are no longer limited by resolution constraints. General purpose computers can handle the work with little or no bespoke hardware requirements.
Fewer projects are even shot on film anymore. An old school, film lab post workflow is largely impossible to mount any longer. And so, video and digital workflows that were once only used for television shows and commercials are now used in nearly all aspects of post, including feature films. There are still some legacy terms in use, such as DI (digital intermediate), which for feature film is essentially an online edit and color correction session.
Given that modern software – even running on a laptop – is capable of performing nearly every creative and technical post-production task, why do we still have separate dedicated processes and different individuals assigned to each? The technical part of the answer is that some tasks do need extra tools. Proper color correction requires precision monitoring and becomes more efficient with specialized control panels. You may well be able to cut with a laptop, but if your source media is made up of 8K RED files, a proxy (offline-to-online) workflow makes more sense.
The human side of the equation is more complex
Post-production tasks often involve a left/right-side brain divide. Not every great editor is good when it comes to the completion phase. In spite of being very creative, many often have sloppy edits, messy timelines, and their project organization leaves a lot to be desired. For example, all footage and sequences just bunched together in one large project without bins. Timelines might have clips spread vertically in no particular order with some disabled clip – based on changes made in each revision path. As I’ve said before: You will be judged by your timelines!
The bottom line is that the kind of personality that makes a good creative editor is different than one that makes a good online editor. The latter is often called a finishing editor today within larger facilities. While not a perfect analogy, there’s a direct evolutionary path from film negative cutter to linear online editor to today’s finishing editor.
If you compare this to the music world, songs are often handled by a mixing engineer followed by a mastering engineer. The mix engineer creates the best studio mix possible and the mastering engineer makes sure that mix adheres to a range of guidelines. The mastering engineer – working with a completely different set of audio tools – often adds their own polish to the piece, so there is creativity employed at this stage, as well. The mastering engineer is the music world’s equivalent to a finishing editor in the video world.
Remember, that on larger projects, like a feature film, the film editor is contracted for a period of time to deliver a finished cut of the film. They are not permanent staff. Once, that job is done the project is handed off to the finishing team to accurately generate the final product working with the high-res media. Other than reviewing the work, there’s no value to having a highly paid film editor also handle basic assembly of the master. This is also true in many high-end commercial editorial companies. It’s more productive to have the creative editors working with the next client, while the staff finishing team finalizes the master files.
The right kit for the job
It also comes down to tools. Avid Symphony is still very much in play, especially with reality television shows. But there’s also no reason finishing and final delivery can’t be done using Apple Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro. Often more specialized edit tools are assigned to these finishing duties, including systems such as Autodesk Smoke/Flame, Quantel Rio, and SGO Mistika. The reason, aside from quality, is that these tools also include comprehensive color and visual effects functions.
Finishing work today includes more that simply conforming a creative edit from a decision list. The finishing editor may be called upon to create minor visual effects and titles along with finessing those that came out of the edit. Increasingly Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve is becoming a strong contender for finishing – especially if Resolve was used for color correction. It’s a powerful all-in-one post-production application, capable of handling all of the effects and delivery chores. If you finish out of Resolve, that cuts out half of the roundtrip process.
Attention to detail is the hallmark of a good finishing editor. Having good color and VFX skills is a big plus. It is, however, a career path in its own right and not necessarily a stepping stone to becoming a top-level feature film editor or even an A-list colorist. While that might be a turn-off to some, it will also appeal to many others and provide a great place to let your skills shine.
©2023 Oliver Peters
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