Category Archives: Editing

In Praise of Kitchy

Way back in the early days of non-linear editing, one could sit in front of the television and figure out the model and version of NLE used to cut the program. Each time a new effect was introduced it was quickly overused. Editors could play drinking games. Versions of After Effects and popular plug-ins were as easily identifiable. It wasn’t that editors were less creative or took more shortcuts 20 years ago. It was the novelty of being able to do something previously difficult or expensive. Eventually the novelty passed.

Manhattan from Times Square

Shot with an iPhone 4S using Hipstamatic

Today technology has advanced to the point that consumers fall prey to the same creative tendencies editors and designers did two decades ago. Instagram, Hipstamatic, and a bevy of other mobile photo apps allow users to apply all sorts of retro filters to give their snapshots an air of sentimentality with a twist of grunge. Professional photographers and videographers cringe. It’s artificial. It degrades the image. The same effect can be achieved more authentically in Photoshop.

But the fact is that few are going master Photoshop or After Effects. Few editors took up After Effects. Good enough is good enough for most.

Rather than turn our professional noses up at these apps, let’s give them their due. They make image creation and sharing fun. In doing so they encourage some to take visual design to the next level. Even more gain a greater appreciation for photography. Many looked over their reading glasses and down their noses at Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, but educators loved the books. Anything to get kids reading.

We should embrace Cinemagram and Flickr filters. Not because they help create high art, but because they help people develop their eye. I love to send students out with Hipstamatic. It teaches them to look at a scene critically and determine in real-time what lens and film combination will accentuate the emotions they want to elicit from the viewer. They don’t get to fix it in post. Like acid washed jeans and Oasis, these apps and their kitchy effects won’t have a great shelf life. But we should enjoy them while they last.

A simple design philosophy

One of my favorite quotes is from Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Good old Antoine has surfaced in my consciousness periodically since high school when I was introduced to his most famous work, Le Petit Prince in Mr. Steindler’s French class. Saint-Exupery’s take on design has served me well no matter what I was designing. Simplify it until you can’t any more. It works for photography, motion design, web apps, and even large, complex professional tools.

Media Composer boxSpending three years designing components for Media Composer, keeping it simple can be tough. Our customers aren’t doing simple things. They are crafting very complex stories with hugely complex systems delivering their raw materials. There’s only so much you can do to simplify extremely detailed workflows that require a high degree of customizability. But it’s clear, our best received features have been those with fewer buttons, fewer menu commands, and fewer settings. A good example of what I mean is Media Composer 6′s in-app stock footage purchasing workflow. Here the designers and engineers took the often exasperating process of searching, browsing, organizing, downloading, purchasing, and conforming stock footage and made it simple. Find it, edit with it, and buy it. The software does the rest.

There are two ways to delight the user. Either give him something absolutely new and wonderful that changes his approach to his craft, or allow him to stop banging his head against the wall. We all love to achieve the former, but the latter should be just as satisfying to the designer.

It’s not about the pixels

Every semester I assign my video post production students Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye. Anyone serious about editing needs to read this book. It’s not loaded with tips and tricks, nor is it very technical. In fact, though fairly recently updated, the book was originally penned before Murch made the leap to digital nonlinear editing.

In the book Murch presents his Rule of Six. It’s simply a ranking of six criteria to consider when making a cut. He assigns each a percentage value for how much weight it should be given. In his rankings the first-time reader is struck by how little relative value Murch places on the technical aspects of a “good” edit. He doesn’t mention the axis of the action, cutting on the action, or camera motion. To Murch the number one criteria to consider when making a cut is its emotional value. Number two is the story. And not until number three, after he’s spent the vast majority of his percentage points does he mention anything remotely technical. This is why Murch is rightly hailed as the sage of the edit room. He gets it. It’s about the emotion. Keep an eye on that, and everything else will work out.

The picture that accompanies this post is part of my ongoing 365 project to post an image a day. It was taken by what is perhaps the worst camera I’ve ever owned. The BlackBerry Bold’s camera yields a horrible image. Look at its output 1:1 on the desktop and you can see the pixel matrix. Prior to that, the lag between pressing the shutter button and the recording of the image can be measured in full seconds. Did I mention it clips blacks as muddy grays and blows out any light source?

Yet good, old image #22 is one of my favorite pictures of all time. It just works. Walter Murch might agree.

Random 365 #22
Originally uploaded to Flickr by Frank Capria


On Murch on 3D

It seems everyone who has ever set foot in a movie theater has an opinion on Walter Murch’s opinion of stereoscopic cinema that was quoted in Roger Ebert’s blog. I’m not interested in going toe to toe with Murch. He’s articulate, brilliant, and famous – and he hates 3D movies. I’m not nearly as articulate or brilliant, and I’ll never be famous – but I like 3D movies.

So what? Some people like them and some don’t. And some people get headaches watching them. No one spends more time thinking about, writing about, and talking about editing and how people see those edits than Walter Murch. I had been a professional editor for several years before I read Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye, and it was only then that I fully understood why cuts work. (Murch reasons that through blinking the brain “cuts” our visual stream into segments. Thus we actually think in cuts, so cutting is a natural way to present a series of clips.)

It’s a bit of a leap to equate blinking when we turn our head 15 or 20 degrees with a cut in the action that takes us from New York to London in 1/24th of a second, but the brain is adaptable. It makes it work. Murch’s theory on blinking and cuts has literally changed the way I look at the world.

That profound reasoning is what makes his current theory on 3D cinema’s shortcomings fail my sniff test.

The biggest problem with 3D, though, is the “convergence/focus” issue. A couple of the other issues — darkness and “smallness” — are at least theoretically solvable. But the deeper problem is that the audience must focus their eyes at the plane of the screen — say it is 80 feet away. This is constant no matter what.

But their eyes must converge at perhaps 10 feet away, then 60 feet, then 120 feet, and so on, depending on what the illusion is. So 3D films require us to focus at one distance and converge at another. And 600 million years of evolution has never presented this problem before. All living things with eyes have always focussed and converged at the same point.

Not really. Murch is only half right. Focusing is a physical act, but convergence is a brain trick — just like reframing by blinking. Think of that eye test where you move the pencil closer to your face until you can no longer see a single pencil. You’re not physically crossing your eyes to converge on the pencil until it’s just inches from your face. Convergence isn’t physically challenging after a few feet. So you’re not doing any physical work with your eyes that competes with its attempts at focusing when sitting 30 feet from the screen.

Getting the brain to adapt to weird visual cues isn’t all that difficult. Back in 1896, George Stratton ran that famous experiment testing perceptual adaptation where subjects wore glasses that inverted the image sent to the eyes, making the world appear upside down. In some surprisingly short amount of time, the subjects’ brains compensated so that the world appeared right again. The whole 600 million years of focus and convergence theory doesn’t hold up.

Murch also complains of the strobing of 3D images.

I edited one 3D film back in the 1980′s — “Captain Eo” — and also noticed that horizontal movement will strobe much sooner in 3D than it does in 2D. This was true then, and it is still true now. It has something to do with the amount of brain power dedicated to studying the edges of things. The more conscious we are of edges, the earlier strobing kicks in.

He’s right, but it’s nothing directors and editors haven’t faced before. I remember making the transition from SD to HD and noting that camera moves needed to be slowed down. Different visual problem, same solution. Along a similar vein, as a television editor going to the cinema after a day in the cutting room could be torturous. After a day of closely watching the world go by at 30 fps, a 24 fps film looks downright staccato — for the first 10 minutes. And then the brain adapts.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was in LA visiting some cutting rooms working in 3D. DPs’ and directors’ approaches to stereoscopic shooting have evolved — so much of that edginess has been softened. Lighting and angles have evolved as well. And just as we learned with Avatar, some of the best 3D is subtle 3D.

Though the jury is still out on 3D cinema, 3D television shows promise. Anyone who frequents live sporting events is disappointed in the flatness of traditional 2D broadcasts at home. At the stadium I know where the ball is going to land. I have depth perception. On TV I need to rely on Joe Buck to tell me where it’s going. 3D changes that — the viewer can see the play unfold, and Joe Buck can say less – that alone makes the case for 3D. As previously noted here, the Economist published a very good article on the topic nine months ago that still holds.

Murch may very well be right. 3D might fizzle, but we won’t need to look back 600 million years for the reason. It would more likely be the $3 per ticket premium that buries it.

Avid Agility is released

Avid Agility bookVery rarely is the reincarnation of a classic pulled off successfully, but Steve Cohen’s done it with Avid Agility: Working Faster and More Intuitively with Avid Media Composer. To a generation of Media Composer editors, his Tips and Techniques manual got us up to professional speed with what was at the time a revolutionary piece of software. I don’t remember when I got mine. All I remember is sending a check and receiving a photocopied and bound text. Any specific tip, technique, or console command escapes me now — it was at least a dozen years since I read it, but the memory of it changing my approach to non-linear editing is fresh.

In keeping with tradition, Avid Agility is self-published, and it’s a good thing. Free of editorial constraints Steve is able to focus on what he finds important rather than having to write for the broadest possible audience. This book is aimed at those editors who want to use the tool to improve their craft. It’s not a technical reference manual covering I/O, codecs, etc. It’s all about how to use Media Composer to its fullest in pursuit of better storytelling.

Avid Agility is the first book I know of that goes into depth covering the new features of Media Composer 5 — the Smart Tool, Advanced Key Frames, etc. It’s an easy read, logically laid out, and useful to novice and experienced editor alike. Steve’s made several pages and the table of contents available on his site. I highly recommend this book.