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Edit by Mail

by on Feb.19, 2011, under Filmmaking

Long-distance's the next-best thing to being there.

I’m working on two big editing projects at the moment and for me they’re a great reminder of how far the technology of editing has advanced in recent years, but also what may have been lost along the way. Editor Travis Bleen, writer-producer Andrew Stoneham, and I have just locked the cut on our new short film Coffee & Pie just in time to do the sound and color correction for our premiere in about two weeks at the Bermuda International Film Festival.  And of course, post-production continues on Divergence with editor Tony Randel, assistant editor Mike Canon, and my co-creator Dan Southworth.

The way I work on most editing projects has changed drastically in the past few years.  Once upon a time, editors literally cut and spliced strips of film, so they had to be in a room where the film was.  There was no duplicate set somewhere else for another editor or the director to muck around with.  The editing happened in the room and it was generally a two-person job because while one was cutting and splicing, the other was going and looking for the right piece of film.

Thank goodness those days are over.

For the movie version of how movies were edited, check out Albert Brooks’s wonderful 1981 comedy Modern Romance.  There’s a very telling clip from Modern Romance on YouTube with Bruno Kirby as the assistant editor and James L. Brooks as the hapless director (about as much comedy genius as anyone could ever hope to cram into one movie scene) that shows what I’m talking about.

Modern Romance editing scene on YouTube

Even ten or twelve years ago when I started making films, I would sit in the Avid bay at Matchframe Video in Burbank with my buddy Paco Farias.  We had to go in late at night when the machines weren’t in use and they’d let us cut projects for free.  Paco would work the machine–which back then was slower than my current laptop–and we would discuss scenes and shots while we’d wait for the Avid to chug along.

But even those days are mostly gone.

Here’s how post works today.  First, someone–usually the editor or assistant editor (but, it turns out, sometimes the director…)–transcodes the footage, preps and syncs up the audio and basically builds up the media that everyone will be working with on the project.  This media drive is then cloned for whoever will be working with it (I think we have four clones floating around on Divergence).  Call it a handy by-product of cheap hard drives*.  Then we mail the cloned media drives wherever they need to be.  Once each editor has their media drives, they can cut Avid or Final Cut Pro projects to their heart’s content and only send the project file to the other editors.  (We use as a free, easy-to-use FTP site for each project.)

Editing Coffee & Pie on Final Cut Pro

Editing Coffee & Pie on Final Cut Pro

I’ve been doing this since we cut Entry Level several years ago. We used Avid for that one and had several different editors working on different sequences at the same time to hit our deadlines.  (These days, I’ve fully transitioned over to Final Cut with no looking back.  It’s a tremendous system.  I’m using FCP 7 now and am very happy with the workflow.)  We cut new sequences, try things out, and then send our files back and forth to each other.  It’s very convenient.  Partly it’s a product of my living in Seattle and working on projects in LA and New York, but that’s not the whole story.  It’s often a lot more convenient and a better way to maximize precious editing time to work like this, than to drive across LA.  Everyone has a super-powered NLE on their laptop these days, so the scarcity of post-production hardware is replaced by the scarcity of our time to work on a project.  And as a result, we work on them at our own places and on our own hours.

There’s a lot to admire about this system.  Ten years ago if you’d have told me and Paco that we could cut our projects in regular daylight hours–let alone each on our own machines–we would have been ecstatic.  So that’s a great advance.  But it does come at a price.  Lately, I’ve really been missing the communal, team effort element of editing.  I get project files from another editor and send off my own.  And we trade notes, but it isn’t the same as getting an idea and running with it.  We have our ideas in sequence rather than really bouncing them off each other and building on them as we try new things.  I think there’s a lot to be gained by breathing the same air, watching the same footage together, and someone riffing off your idea that doesn’t quite work…until they add their own slant and create a breakthrough.  Editing long projects can be pretty lonely and when you’ve looked at a performance too many times, often you start missing the nuance–this is when another person’s perspective can be extremely valuable.

I miss hanging out in the edit bay with Paco and the other fine editors I’ve worked with in the past.  I have a feeling that a few years from now, we’ll all be editing 3D video at 4K resolution on our iPhone 9s and shipping off files in the blink of an 8G eye.  We’ll probably get more done faster than ever before, but all while communicating with each other less.

Maybe there’s a story in there…

I like my hard drives big, fast, and cheap!

* By the way, for you Final Cut editors out there, I highly recommend an ExpressCard eSATA interface card and Thermaltake eSATA hard drive cradle.  My old MacBookPro sped up incredibly when I pitched Firewire and USB for eSATA.  The eSATA interface makes external drives as fast as your internal hard drive–which is extremely important when you’re cutting multiple instances of HD video.  And if you end up cutting a lot of different projects, the cradle lets you buy bare-bones drives and just set them right into the cradle for editing.  Why keep paying the $40 premium for a Firewire 800 interface on every drive when you can buy a much faster interface once and use cheap drives from then on?

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