Tag Archives: Media Composer

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.

Creativity and execution

I’ve had the honor of working with some of the most brilliant people on the planet across several industries, and have often marveled they they are not the most successful.

“People of mediocre ability sometimes achieve outstanding success because they don’t know when to quit.”

George Allen,  NFL Coach

Tenacity. Give me a half-baked idea that gets to market over the perfect idea stuck on a whiteboard.

“A little less conversation, a little more action.”

Elvis Presley

It really is possible to talk an idea to death. In business school they place a huge emphasis on business plans. Business plans serve a singular purpose. They validate ideas, but not through addressable market analysis and discounted cash flows. If you’re still passionate about your idea after all that analysis, odds are it’s a pretty good idea.

Every book on entrepreneurship tells the reader the business plan is a living document. Yeah, it lives in some folder on some hard disk. The most action it sees is getting scanned for viruses once a month.

Making the magic happen

After almost three years working among some of the best product managers, designers, and engineers at Avid, I’ve learned that great ideas will always come. We joke that if you build a company around a bunch of rock musicians and filmmakers cool shit is bound to happen. But the fact is that emphasis on execution is the path to success. Creative people instinctively hate process, but a healthy dose of process can be liberating. Media Composer 5.x and Pro Tools 9 were conceived from brilliant ideas, but they were born on ruthless execution.

Every effective team in any company has its own tricks. Here are a few I’ve seen work over the years.

Write it down

Creative people are easily distracted. The trick is to manage the distractions, and the best way to do that is to record everything. That stray thought, although profoundly brilliant, will hang around much longer if you’re afraid of losing it. Jot it down. Record a voice memo. Anything. What’s important is that you find a tool you enjoy using. Most productivity gurus recommend having one, single repository. That’s never worked for me. I use paper notebooks (with numbered pages), Livescribe notebooks, online notebooks, Post-its, photo albums on my phone, and good, old file folders. My index for this system lives online in an Evernote notebook.

Though it sounds like I use a confusing jumble of tools, it’s really a simple system.

  • Old fashioned computation notebook: I use the numbered graph paper pages for sketching. I often staple magazine clippings, Post-It notes, and other paper items to the pages. (I don’t use Livescribe notebooks this way simply because the electronically archivable dot paper notebooks are so damn expensive.)
  • Livescribe notebook: I use these mostly for meeting notes. The smart pens have built-in audio recorders, so that as I fall behind in my note taking I can start recording. The ability to electronically search hand-written notes in invaluable.
  • Blackberry: The camera records whiteboards, clever billboards, store displays, movie posters, and book covers. Anything I need to be reminded of. At the end of every week or so, I take what I want to keep and upload it to Evernote or Flickr.
  • Evernote: Once an idea gains some traction its detritus is gathered into a single entry in the online notebook. Every few days I catalog all the stuff I’ve recorded that’s worth keeping in Evernote. I just add a note on a topic and index where all the physical and electronic clippings live. Evernote’s super fast at searching hundreds of pages of notes. (It’s worth mentioning here that Springpad is another online notebook I use frequently. I find it stores personal data like restaurants, movies, etc. better than Evernote.)

As confusing and cluttered as this hodgepodge of recording methods sounds, it’s remarkably simple. And it’s visual, so it can be very inspiring.

Have a framework for action

Personal productivity methodologies like GTD (Getting Things Done) and Action Method are more like cults than tools, but if you take the parts of them you like and ignore the stuff that just feels too OCD-ish, they can be effective. OK, I admit I’m a recovering GTD addict. Action Method is now my tool of choice — simply because it looks like Greenhopper’s Jira, the tool we use to track Agile/Scrum development at Avid. At the end of the day it’s an online to-do list that cost $99/year unless you can persuade a fair number of colleagues to use its collaboration features. Most people will do just as well with the free, but visually ugly Voo2do.

Set aside playtime

My mid-afternoon lulls are the stuff of legend. I crash like no one else I know. So I set aside the time from about 2:00 to 3:30 as creative exploration time. I’m not going to get anything productive done in that time, so I find a way to put it to use. That includes those oft-forbidden office activities such as scanning Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Once I was caught perusing Monster. I was trying to figure out what other companies in our space were working on by checking out what positions they were filling in the down economy, but I’m not sure my colleague believed that at the time.

Have a sacred creative space (or two)

Ideally your special place is at the office, but as Jason Fried of 37 Signals noted in his TED talk Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work, that’s rarely the case. Go ahead, use your first dedicated playtime to watch Fried’s talk.

My sacred creative space is my home office. It’s in the corner of the basement – away from the madding crowd. It’s got a great view of the conservation land behind my house for me to stare out at and ponder great things. But what’s really special is that I’ve set up two workspaces in it – one for the left brain, and one for the right.

The left-brained desk has my PC laptop and an iMac with all the expected office software. The desk phone and mobile phone are kept there. It’s where I take Skype and iChat meetings, and where I make conference calls. The right-brained desk and rack contains all my audio and video gear for Media Composer and Pro Tools. It’s where I edit my digital photos, and where I build my experimental little apps. It’s where I try out competitors’ products, and play meaningless games. Nothing to be done under deadline is taken on at that desk. It’s play space.

It’s amazing how my attitude, my posture, and my frame of mind change depending on the chair I occupy.  When in the work chair, it’s all about execution. When the going gets tough, I use the other chair as a carrot.

Work where you can get stuff done

Unfortunately most offices are not conducive to creativity. Has anyone ever had a good idea in an hour meeting with more more than a few people in the room? Work at home. Work at Starbucks. Work in the cafeteria. Just get away from Outlook.

Good luck. Please feel free to add comments about what works for you.


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.

Back to school

The katydids are out. As a kid the sound was the harbinger of the end of summer. To teachers their song is “write your syllabus.” This year is very different. Working at Avid will surely have a profound effect on how I teach FT504-Video Post Production I. Previously I’d always taught the class, quoting my lecture notes, as “Avid-centric, but Final Cut tolerant.” Meaning I used Avid Media Composer for classroom demos, but would answer Final Cut Pro questions.

Beyond loyalty to my new employer, and pride in my new position as Senior Product Designer for Media Composer, my Avid knowledge is deeper than ever, so I’m obviously tempted to make it an Avid-only curriculum. I can teach my students some pretty neat Media Composer tricks. But is that the right thing to do? Should I put more focus on Avid just because I know (and love) it better? Probably not.

This semester I’ll continue to be “Avid-centric” and include Final Cut Pro in some form in my teaching – not just to do right by my students, but to do right by my colleagues at Avid. Everyone should keep an eye on the competition.