Faster. Stronger. . . (not necessarily) Better. – PART 2

If you recall from Monday’s post, I related an example of a very complicated and convoluted set of media files related to a one hour-long nature documentary. 10 camera formats. 1080 & 720. 23.98fps. 29.97fps. All delivered on 25 external hard drives.

With all the the recent advancements in cameras and acquisition technologies, the expectation is the process of media production should become faster, easier and more stream-lined. We associate improvement with advancement, right?  If it’s new then it must be better. As I mentioned in part one of this post, though, as media production has moved into the digital space, it has become bogged down by the plethora of choices available to creators. The work  feels more complicated and time-consuming, and it doesn’t necessarily result in a better product.

Why? Why is it like this?

I blame free-market capitalism. No, really. It’s all about who invents a system, who gets that system patented, and who profits from the licenses of those technologies. It is a free-market system into which millions of marketing dollars are pumped every year. Everyone involved is doing their best to get you to use their system or their workflow. There is very little concern for the long-term impact of the changes these technologies force upon us. There doesn’t seem to be much concern about the long-term viability of these systems, either.  Nor does there seem to be much care given to making this any easier to deal with. But, these companies can’t keep developing new stuff if there isn’t a market. And making stuff that works with the old stuff means you’d end up spending less and less over time. That can’t be, so free-market capitalism has formed this happy relationship with the tech companies to keep it all humming along. It seems to be working just fine…for them.

But as a user of this technology, I have to ask if we are really better off. Do the endless technological options and advancements lead us to create more successful products for less money and less time? Or does it just create ten new problems for every one it solves?

Let’s look at digital high definition as an example of things can get very complicated very quickly.

Now in Digital High Definition

Even though corporations drive the development of media technology, until recently, they were subject to some very specific and narrow regulations on what passed as Broadcast Quality. The FCC (in the US) and the EBU (in Europe) had very narrow definitions of what qualified as “broadcast safe“. NTSC and PAL were mandated by those bodies and anything you wanted to put on the airwaves had to meet those one of those standards. Both of them came in just a few varieties and there was little question if something met specs or not. And because it just wouldn’t make economic sense to create two-tiers of products, the Broadcast Standards drove the market. (i.e.- the market for video gear that didn’t work with existing gear was/is very small, hence it never took off).

Along comes HD and a switch from analog over to digital and a need by the governing bodies to re-define specs and standards. The governing bodies, however, aren’t a bunch of engineers. They are career policy wonks. Additionally, this all came at a time of massive deregulation and relaxation of governmental oversight. In the face of this, the FCC & EBU turned to the technology companies themselves to define the HD standards. On the surface, it seems like a really great thing to let the companies who will build the products define the standards because they know their own limits and boundaries. But . . .

In the U.S., the FCC formed the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service in 1987. Out of that came the Grand Alliance – a group of technology companies with a vested interest in creating the new standards for what would become High Definition as we know it today. Eventually, the HD specs were codified into the ATSC Standard. When you factor in screen-size, interlacing vs. progressive, & frame rates, there are 79 different possible formats that fall under this standard (57 for HD alone). And of course, once again, North America is on a different standard than much of the rest of the world. For us, it’s ATSC. For Europe and much of Asia, it is Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB). Thankfully, both standards can accommodate each other’s frame rates, so it isn’t as bad as before.

Basically, a bunch of vested parties created a seat at the table (some would argue they created the table itself) and then proceeded to squeeze in a large number of “standard” formats. Expanding the number of standards has only served to confuse matters. In the days NTSC/PAL, you could be fairly certain that material sent to you would work in your show. Today’s world of mixed resolutions and frame rates, while certainly possible technically, is very messy. I don’t think the intent was to create a mess, but that is what we have. While it isn’t always a given that, as technology advances, things become more simple and efficient; generally that’s the case. Often there can be unintended effects that ripple around a given advancement.

The Microwave Effect

80 years ago, if you wanted to boil water, you started a fire or lit the stove and you waited. Then, starting in 1970, the microwave oven turned that several minute wait into seconds. It was, undoubtedly, a time saver. The microwave oven has had an unintended effect on its user’s psyche as well. Back in the days of waiting to watch a pot boil a few long minutes wasn’t that big of a deal. Today, we find ourselves getting impatient while waiting 30 seconds for that cup of hot water to come out of the microwave. It has eroded our patience. I call it The Microwave Effect. We need instant gratification. This subtle little change to our ability to wait has far-reaching impacts. It reaches right into the world of Media acquisition. Let me explain.

Tapeless cameras have made it possible to shoot hours and hours of footage. It’s easy. It’s simple. There’s no tapes to load or lug around. There’s no film to load or process. Just shoot and copy it to a hard drive. It all gets recorded as files. Files are what the editor needs to work with to create a show. The editor needs footage, and these cameras can shoot a lot of it. Over shooting is commonplace because there’s such a low upfront cost. There are costs, however. These costs are hidden or delayed, but they are still there.

Here’s a hidden cost: more footage means the editor needs more time to go through it all. But the editor doesn’t have more time in today’s world. In fact, they have less time because schedules are tighter and turn-around times are shorter. You get the double whammy of more footage, less time, and a demand that the final product be cranked out very quickly. It is The Microwave Effect in full force.

Here is an actual conversation I overheard that sums it up pretty well:

Producer, on a conference call with a prospective editor: “So you’ll get 2 weeks to cut the show to roughcut stage…”
Editor, voice wavering: “When I cut for you last season, we had 3 weeks per episode.”
Producer: “I know. But the network wants a faster delivery this season, so you’ll just need to cut fast.”
Editor: “OK, I guess so.”
Producer: “But, this time around we’re using tapeless cameras! We’ll have 3 cameras on most shoots, instead of the one or two we had last season. You’ll have so much more footage to choose from. It should be a piece of cake!”
Editor: “More footage? Is an AP going to log it in advance?”
Producer: “Hmmmm, I guess we could get an intern on that, but it should all go really quick because it’ll already be Quicktime files. You can just bring them in and start editing right away!”
Editor: “In two weeks instead of three. With more footage per episode. All logged by an inexperienced intern…Sounds awesome.”

In my memory, I can just hear a microwave beeping in the background right after the editor finished talking.

And what about that editor?

Now, to pile more problems on top of the Multiple Format Standards and Microwave Effect problems – media acquisition has migrated responsibilities around a bit. What used to be set in place by choices in the field, has now been unceremoniously foisted off to someone else down the line. In the olden days of 2002, you would shoot to tapes. Someone would go through those tapes and load all the best takes and you’d be ready to start editing. There weren’t many options because NTSC was just NTSC. You, as the Editor, might even do that loading yourself, because that would give you a chance to  watch the footage play back, in real time – A brief pause to collect yourself and get your head around this pile of stuff before setting down to craft something out of it. Ah, the good old days.

You may have heard a new term for a crew position lately: Media Wrangler. This is the person who is responsible for making sure all the media is being backed up and transferred to systems which can interface with the post-production part of the process. Media Wranglers are often younger, less experienced folk who have gained a foothold with their ability to work with computers. They have much to learn, but mostly they are eager and quick to pick things up. But any Media Wrangler who has talent also demands to be compensated. Most budgets don’t factor in another crew hand, so often the task of wrangling media falls on the Camera Operator, or Audio Operator, or Producer, or a Production Assistant. Because these folks are often doing media wrangling as a second, third, or even fourth duty, the attention to detail and careful consideration of how their work could be creating more work for someone who will come along later often goes by the wayside. Then the task of figuring this out falls on the editor, the one person in this process who already has the biggest responsibility (see below) for creating a polished and professional product. The one person in this chain who is in the least in need of being given more responsibility.

The editor is the person with the second biggest responsibility behind the producer or director or line producer or whoever is actually responsible for making the show. (See? It’s even gotten so muddled that you can’t figure out who makes the decisions half the time.) What’s clear to me, having been in the editor’s chair and the show creator’s chair, is that the editor is often The One Who Makes It All Happen. The editor is going to have to figure out how to get all these formats and frame rates and elements to go together and come out as a technically & creatively acceptable product on the other end. It falls to them. And, far to often, blame falls on them as well. Blame for a show that fails to perform. Blame for muddled writing, poor performances, or rough transitions. I’ve seen editors be the scapegoat for another team member’s failure to deliver. So, in my mind, the editor is often the one who puts their butt on the line when it comes to bringing a show to completion.

As an editor, I often find myself taking on the following responsibilities: log the footage, edit the show, find the music, conceive/create/design the show graphics, VO talent or engineer, scriptwriting…well, script-tweaker, footage/stills researcher.

For those of you keeping score, that’s seven primary responsibilities, a couple of which are full time jobs in and of themselves. You need to be a good listener, a good conversationalist, have an open-mind to try new things, and be able to make many decisions very quickly. It is a challenging position. And this list could easily double or triple in size. My point is that, as editors, the last thing we need to be worrying about is how to convert the 57 different types of footage in to a format that is compatible with our systems. Well, we need to worry about it, but we shouldn’t be the ones who are forced into dealing with preventable problems from the field. (In other words, call us before you shoot!)

All of that above has left us with the mess we have today. More footage. Less time. And the pressure to deliver immediate results.

And this is where I feel things aren’t working out quite correctly. I’m not opposed to new technologies and finding new methods of doing things. Some of these new cameras are amazing. Some of them are not. I just haven’t decided yet if the way things are playing out is really the best for everyone. It certainly seems, to me, that this stuff is sufficiently complicated that we all may be painting ourselves into a corner without even realizing it.

Next time we dive back in with a look at some of the pitfalls of tapeless acquisition from an archival/historical perspective…

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