Faster. Stronger. . . (not necessarily) Better. – PART 1

It’s the whole premise of The Six Million Dollar Man: “We have the technology to make him better, stronger, faster than he was before!” I’m all for it in most aspects, but some things have become faster and stronger, but not really better. And in some cases, much worse than before.

Take acquisition. I’m talking about capturing material in the creation of a program. It can be whatever kind of show you’d like. Developments in digital acquisition have exploded in the last few years. We have such cool toys with which to capture events in 2D or 3D – Red EPIC, Phantom, Viper, DSLR, P2, XDCAM, F3, AF-100, 5D, 7D, C300, GoPro – the list goes on and on.

The image quality cannot be denied for many of these new cameras. They are amazing. If you had told me I would be working with HD images at 5K resolution just 5 years ago I would have doubted you. The detail and latitude these new devices provide are incredible. But there’s a downside to it all. A downside I don’t think anyone really thought through as these new technologies were being proposed, designed and invented. It’s a downside that many production people don’t see or even think about. It’s a downside that foists responsibility onto the last person in the chain of program creation that needs more responsibility.

I mean no criticism of any individual production company or producer by laying this all out. I see this as a problem of formats, incompatibilities, and vendor choices more than a failure of individual choices. This is the reality many editors face. Something doesn’t sit right with me about it all. In the midst of all this advancement, the workflows, job descriptions, and mentality surrounding dealing with media hasn’t kept pace with reality. It is creating problems down the line and these issues are so complex that I don’t think many comprehend the trouble we’re about to come up against – trouble that translates into dollars and time wasted in a market where both things are drying up.

Let’s take a look at a single show (yes, a single show) I’ve recently been involved with: This program is an hour long nature documentary. It was shot over the course of 6 months. It got its start as being both a broadcast show and a theatrical release. When the proposition of theatrical release failed to materialize, the show’s production budget had to be tightened.

What started as a Red EPIC 5k shoot with some Phantom, DSLR & GoPro footage had to switch to a variety of HD cameras: HDX900, 5D, 7D, XDCAM, HVX-200, DVCPRO-HD & CineFlex. This switch seemed to be predicated primarily by what camera operators were available to shoot and when. It went from 4 formats to 10. When all of the camera original backups were delivered it came on 25 external drives. Thankfully most of those were master/backup pairs, so realistically I’m dealing with 15 drives. Still, that’s about 20 terabytes of material and it is all over the place.

To start there’s the issue of resolution – it’s a mix of 1080 & 720 now. Obviously, the Red, Phantom and DSLR’s are capable of higher-than-1080 resolutions, but 1080 is all that is required for broadcast delivery, so that becomes the sweet spot. And of course, there’s a frame rate issue. Network deliverables call for 1080i60 master. That means 29.97. Much of the above footage is shot at 23.98, but not all of it. Standard fare these days. So, everything is being converted to Apple Pro Res 422 1080i30 (or 1080i24 depending on original frame rate). The show will be cut in FCP7 on a 1080i30 timeline.

“It’s always something,” is one of my dad’s sayings about dealing with technical issues. It’s become a mantra of mine when dealing with these kinds of projects. “It’s always something,” I find myself repeating as I have to manually organize files or build complicated Terminal batch files via a set of hoop-jumping steps in a text editor.

After getting it all sorted and figuring out what needed to be done to what & in what order, I set to work. The show will begin editing soon and I think all the footage will have been converted to a format that should make the edit go smoothly. I’m really good when it comes to sorting out ways to solve media conversion issues, even if I do say so myself.

At some point in the process of working through all this footage, I thought, “why? why is it always something?” I know a large part of that is the nature of the beast. Media production of any kind is fraught with issues to be resolved and problems in need of fixing. But a portion of this problem is fabricated. It is created by the technological changes to the process of acquisition our field has gone through over the last 5 years. I’m not sure we have landed in a better place. Higher quality? Yes. Lighter gear? Yes. Faster gear? Absolutely. Cheaper? Yes…more or less. (there are hidden costs of both money and time). More choices? Yes…but that’s not always a good thing.

I remember a funny story I heard from a college friend after I had graduated and begun editing on Avid/1 (as it was called back then). He was working with a small production group as an assistant editor. It was around the time they had finished their first show on an Avid:

“Yeah, Avid is cool and all,” he said, ” but it really isn’t helping get this show done.”

“Why not,” I replied. I was thinking they just didn’t understand how useful this editing tool was.

“Well, in the same time it took us to cut a similar show last year on the flatbed,” he said with the wistful look of a masochist…I mean…film-editor who missed his splicing block and processing chemical cologne,” we cut 4 versions of the show.”

“Wait,” I said, ” you cut 4 versions on the Avid in the same time it took to cut one on film?”

“Yeah,” he replied, “now everyone’s fighting over who’s version is better.”

And that, right there, is exactly the problem we face: As media production moved into the digital space, it became bogged down by the plethora of choices available to the creators. It’s a wonder anything ever gets created at all.

Join us next time as we explore the question of “why is it like this?”

One Reply to “Faster. Stronger. . . (not necessarily) Better. – PART 1”

Leave a Reply