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Editing with Style

(click thumbnail)Mark WestIt’s not just what you say, but how you say it that shapes what we call "style," and nothing is more influential in shaping the landscape of our media environment than the creative input contributed by digital video editing pros. Recently, I surveyed a sampling of editors pursuing various postproduction paths to ask about the trends in on-air looks and behind-the-scenes procedures they have observed from behind their consoles.

While editing the popular black situation comedy "The Hughleys," seen these days on UPN, editor Mark West has noticed that the pace of sitcoms has noticeably accelerated over the past five years. He recalls a dozen years ago watching a tape with producer Nick Vanoff of "The Kennedy Honors" and "The Sonny and Cher Show" fame, as it scanned across a monitor in fast-forward. Vanoff observed, "In my career television has sped up so much that by the time your career is over everything will look like that."

It is also West’s opinion that sitcoms tend to use more montage sequences these days. "Even though we shoot ‘The Hughleys’ with multiple cameras, when it comes to a montage sequence it’s usually just easier to roll a single camera onto the set and go," he said.

For example, in a recent episode the D. L. Hughley character’s aunt, Jessie Mae, was going broke running her hair salon, so D. L. and his family tried to learn how to coif the customers’ hair with predictably disastrous results. West cut the sight gags together into a musical montage.

"I edited it to seven different pieces of music," he said, "and eventually the producers used a completely different cut during audio sweetening. Still, everyone told me the visuals fit pretty well. But overall, I see that a lot of shows – even ‘The Sopranos’ – are using that ‘music video’ style technique more and more."

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Mike Goedecke, who edits at a Santa Monica production company simply called Belief, tells us he is seeing a lot of changes in the process of creating graphics. "There is a lot of editing required in the graphics world these days," he reflects. "Even when just putting a show package together we need more sophisticated editing capabilities today than we did just a few years ago."

The Belief studio occupies 9,000 square feet and contains 18 Media 100 systems, two for each of their graphics designers so that each artist can edit on one system while the other is occupied rendering an effect. "What is nice is that when you are editing on one Media 100 you can export it into another graphics program as a reference movie," Goedecke explained, "and the material will still refer back to the original digitized media. A lot of studios don’t have this capability, so their graphics designers have to compete over one edit bay. But now NLEs are so inexpensive that we can afford to give everyone their own edit system."

Goedecke also sees the advent of Webstreaming affecting the role of the editor. "Media 100 has a new technology called EventStream, which lets editors embed interactive instructions directly into streaming media programs," he explained. "This lets us trigger highly visual graphics, rollovers, hotkeys, Flash animations and Java applications directly from the edit system."

The innovation is that the editor can make sure these effects are all synchronized with the streaming video on the Web site. EventStream supports direct output of QuickTime interactive streaming media files and can export to Cleaner 5 for production of interactive streaming media in RealSystems and Windows Media format directly from the editor’s timeline.


"This is really expanding the capabilities of the editor to include authoring that had to be done on separate workstations just a few years ago," Goedecke said. "Now you have to think ‘I have a nonlinear program that will have to be navigated linearly by the viewer.’ It’s a whole new approach to editing."

Over at Seven Seconds in Universal City, Calif., editor Gus Comegys is spending a lot of time preparing on-air promos for ABC network, among other effects-centric projects, on an Avid|DS system. He sees a trend toward doing far more effects during offline than in recent years.

"Clients want to have a more firm idea of what the effects will look like before going to online," he said. "This means the offline editor is carrying more of the load for the final look of a show than they traditionally did."

But West sees a potential downside to this evolution. "Unfortunately this leads a lot of offline editors to be computer people, not editing specialists," he says. "They are hired to control the technology, not because they understand the whole postproduction process, so they lose sight of the big picture. For example, you can dial up any speed on a disk-based offline system, but new editors don’t understand that if the project is to be onlined in, say, a Grass Valley linear, there are severe limits to the kind of motion effects you can use. This isn’t universally true, but we are sometimes seeing more computer experts that trained editors in offline these days."

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Paul Nesmith is flying a Discreet smoke* system at Hollywood’s Octane Post, where he cuts everything from music videos to long-form historical documentaries. "I think editing has become more diverse over the years," Nesmith said. "It’s not like you can specialize in one format such as comedy or drama because the clients don’t want to move from room to room on different projects."

For example, when we spoke Nesmith was working on a music video for the Christian rock band Plus One and he was creating graphics, touching up the video and editing to the music all on his smoke* system. "One effect I see from this trend is that production crews tend to be less efficient," he says. "They all know you can fix almost anything during editing, so they sometimes toss grenades at post rather than cleaning things up on the set."

This puts more responsibility on the shoulders of the online editor. As Nesmith puts it, "Online is no longer a place where the monkey pushes the buttons and a show automatically assembles. Today, the online editor is more like being a fireman, constantly dealing with emergencies and figuring out ways to solve a show’s problems. Basically, people expect more perfection from video postproduction, and an online editor’s job is to come up with alternatives and solutions."

Eric Boyer free-lances on Quantel Editboxes at various facilities across the country, but he is also a partner at a new house in Alexandria, Va., called Prism Digital Post, where they cut a lot of commercial spots – especially those for political campaigns. "There have been a lot of changes over my 12-year editing career," he said. "Stylistically, everything used to be done in camera with far less special effects added in post. I used to be lucky to edit on 1-inch machines with a basic Ampex ADO effects device. Now we have almost unlimited effects in our NLEs – and this means the editor can be more creative and deal less with number crunching," he said.

"We are no longer just putting pretty pictures together. I recently cut together the basic images for a Los Angeles mayoral campaign spot in 20 minutes and then spent several hours creating the additional fonts, graphics and effects," Boyer said.

These subtle additions may or may not be noticed by the intended audience, but more often than not these details determine a video production’s impact. Some may call them minutiae. Editors call them "style."