Post Production

Growing pains – the desktop video identity crisis

The agony and the angst of beginning a new career with new technology

Some of the most confusing aspects of a job have nothing to do with hardware problems or software upgrades.  Everyone using After Effects knows that Video Copilot produce great tutorials, but none of them tell you how to deal with a co-worker who has bad body odor, or what to do if a client hasn’t paid your invoice.

Since the emergence of desktop video, technical help, product reviews and tutorials have only been an internet search away.  But the internet is often less helpful when it comes to subjects such as finding work, different business models and dealing with clients.  To an individual working in the video production industry, these personal issues can be more significant to their day-to-day life than decisions such as choosing which camera to buy.

When I look back at the first few years of my career, I can clearly see that the most difficult things for me weren’t related to computers or the basic technical aspects of how to do my job.  The bigger frustrations I had were to do with struggling to understand where I fit into the industry, and even what the industry actually was.

In the time since I started my first job – now approaching 20 years – I’ve often recognized the same issues, questions, doubts and angst that I felt at various times also being felt by friends, co-workers and even random posters on internet forums.

With the benefit of hindsight – and, I hope, a little wisdom that comes with age – I can see that a lot of the uncertainty can be traced back to two basic origins:

Firstly, the job we had didn’t exist before we had it.  My first job wasn’t just a new job in the sense that I was a graduate with no experience, and it was my first job.  It was a new job in that non-linear editing was a new thing itself, and the job of non-linear editing didn’t exist before I got it.  Non-linear editors around the world weren’t just innovators with new technology, we were also innovators with entirely new workflows.  We were at the forefront of the desktop video revolution, and although we were changing the way the industry had worked for decades, that didn’t mean we always knew what we were doing.

Secondly – and this is something I’ll elaborate on in a future article – not all video productions were the same.  There were entirely separate worlds out there that had different values, priorities and practices, and while video production may have been a common factor for some businesses, in other ways they were worlds apart.  Working out where you fit into the industry was not always easy.

What I find interesting is that the job I do now – an After Effects specialist – is something I didn’t even know existed when I began my first job as a non-linear editor.

In the late 1990s the internet was much more primitive than it is now, but it was already a valuable resource for the emerging desktop video industry.  Years before the Creative Cow or Video Copilot websites launched, a range of online resources for desktop video had emerged, and I used to browse various Media 100 and After Effects forums every day.  Most of the posts were of a technical nature- the ‘how do I do this effect’ sort of thing- but one day someone posted a simple question: “What do we call ourselves?  We’re not just editors.   We animate text and logos, we create visual effects, we colour grade videos. What are we?  Designers?  Animators?  Compositors?”

This was a good question.  Anyone reading this on the ProVideo Coalition will be familiar with the term ‘motion graphics designer’, but there was a time when that term didn’t exist.  The seminal website ‘motionographer’ is testament to the fact that alternative names could have taken hold instead.

Simple questions like this are a good reminder of how young our profession is.  It was easy enough when everyone was an editor, but as technology evolved and the capabilities of software expanded to include animation and visual effects, it became more confusing.  Whether you want to call yourself a motion graphics designer, a motionographer, a compositor or simply an animator it’s worth remembering that whatever you do and whatever you call yourself, you probably couldn’t have had exactly the same job more than 20 years ago.

 


For a long time, the film and television industries required the use of very expensive hardware in order to produce results of an acceptable quality.  In most cases, anyone who needed to use this equipment only needed it for a single project, or a short period of time, so it didn’t make sense to purchase it.  In 1997 a complete Flame suite cost about a million dollars, so even big advertising agencies weren’t going to rush out and buy one just to online a TV commercial.

Instead, the film & TV industry has a long tradition of hiring equipment from dedicated facilities. Entire rental companies and post-production suites were based around expensive pieces of equipment that people would come in and hire by the hour, day or week.  These types of facilities have existed for decades.  Even today, Panavision only hires out their cameras- they’re not for sale.

It’s often said that time is money, and this was definitely true in the late 90s when you were booking out an online suite, or a colour grading suite, and paying by the hour.  As I detailed in the desktop video revolution series– in 1997 we were paying $1,200 an hour for a Quantel Editbox suite.  Discrete Logic Flames were similar, if not more expensive.

If you were working in this type of environment, where it literally cost $20 per minute just to be in the room, there was a certain amount of expectation and pressure from the client for the operator to work as quickly and efficiently as possible.  The high cost of these suites wasn’t just for the expensive kit, it was also for the experience, expertise and speed of the operator who came with the room – and also for all of the supporting infrastructure.  It was rare for such an expensive, high-end tool to be plonked in a bare room.  Online edit suites were usually expensively furnished and the clients were treated like five star hotel guests.  In some high-end post-production facilities this could even extend to a personal chef.  When you paid $1,200 an hour for the Flame or Quantel suite, you weren’t just paying to online your video – you were paying for the online experience.

From the producer’s perspective, it was critical to accurately estimate and budget for the amount of time it would take to complete a project in post.  Running over the budgeted time by only a few hours could have very serious ramifications on profit, and any time spent in an online suite was spent with one eye on the screen and the other on the clock.

Working this way was part of the film and TV culture, and walking into a new job in a post facility was walking into a decades-long tradition of high pressure and high expectations.  Producers were constantly trying to do deals, or get capped price quotes, and facility managers were always under pressure to keep their booking sheets full and their clients happy.  The Australian facility that loudly advertised their personal chef also offered to fly interstate clients to their suites “for free” – presumably an accountant had calculated that the profits from a day in the Flame suite would more than cover the cost of the flights.  But the fact that many post production facilities didn’t survive (including the one with the chef) suggests that it was difficult to get the balance right.

When the first non-linear edit suites launched as commercial products in the very early 1990s, video production was based around analogue technology.  The workflows used in video post-production dated back to the launch of television in the 1950s.

Traditionally, there had always been offline and online editors.  Offline suites were cheap and very basic – the cheapest and most basic could only do simple cuts, so all transitions such as fades and dissolves had to be imagined.  There were no graphic capabilities at all.  You could pay more for an offline suite that offered a few basic wipes as well as dissolves, but hardly any offline suites offered a way of generating text or other graphics.

The offline edit process was all about making the creative editing decisions.  Because they were cheap to hire, offline editors could take the time needed to go through all the rushes and assemble the best takes- but the image quality was low.  Once the editing decisions had been made, the approved offline edit would be completely re-created at high quality in an online edit suite.

Online edit suites were an assembly of expensive, proprietary black boxes that were designed for one specific task.  If your video needed some text- a basic name super, for example – then it would be created with a dedicated video character generator that may have only had 8 fonts to choose between.

When the first desktop non-linear systems were launched, they were definitely offline only.  The Lightworks, for example, worked with video at MPEG1 resolution and the first generation of Media 100s compressed video to roughly VHS quality.

Image quality aside, the early non-linear edit suites of the 1990s were really pushing the boundaries of what the technology could do, and amongst the early adopters there was a tangible sense of pride in what they were capable of and how they changed the way that editing had been done for decades.  I can remember a client from my very early days as a Media 100 editor, who seemed delighted whenever the system crashed.  “We’ve pushed it over the limit!” – he’d say, rationalizing the interruptions with the thought that we were technological pioneers.  Although it was unusual to find someone who wasn’t bothered by software crashing, around the mid 90s it wasn’t unusual to see the astonished wonder of a producer or director who hadn’t worked with a non-linear suite before.

In a traditional tape-based offline suite, one common but dreaded scenario was discovering that the edit of a 30 second TVC was in fact about 31 seconds long, and that the fix was to take 2 frames off each shot.  In the traditional linear world  this meant starting the edit again but in a new non-linear suite, it only took a few mouse clicks.

When non-linear systems were all offline tools it was easy to overlook their temperamental nature and evangelize their strengths.  Their cost was comparable – or less – than traditional tape based suites but they were so much more flexible.  Once you had tried editing with a non-linear suite it was hard to go back to tape – any owners or operators of a non-linear suite would have little doubt that their new systems were clearly superior to the traditional offline alternative.  It was easy for an owner or operator of such a suite to understand exactly what services they were offering, and where they fit into the market.

1997 was a significant year for non-linear editing, as both Avid and Media 100 released upgrades that made their desktop suites “online quality”.  While Media 100 were initially more vocal about advertising the potential, it was clear that desktop suites were, in their own way, now competing with the traditional high-end tools that cost ten times as much.

But just like a student graduating from primary school to high school, this radical change represented a new and unknown territory.  And just like anyone on their first day of high school, it would take some time to work out where everyone fit in.

When comparing a new non-linear suite to a traditional tape-based offline suite, it was pretty hard to think of any advantages the tape suites had.  But comparing a new non-linear suite to a Flame or Quantel system was a totally different equation.  The obvious difference was the cost – but if you ignored the cost then the new desktop systems had few (if any) advantages over their premium rivals.  So the question really came down to whether the difference in cost was worth the difference in performance.

The problem was that a desktop video suite might have been 10 times cheaper to hire (or buy) than a Quantel or Flame, but in many cases it was also 10 times slower.  The whole point of an edit suite based around a desktop computer was the low cost – but the desktop systems were undoubtedly less powerful than the expensive alternatives.  In this world, owners and operators of desktop systems created a previously undefined segment of the market, and suddenly the questions of what services you were offering, how much to charge, and where you fit in to the overall industry became less clear.

 


Working with a new non-linear suite in the 1990s could be very stressful.  The systems were primitive and often unstable.  They needed to be nurtured and required a certain amount of technical expertise to maintain.  But despite all of the stress caused by recalcitrant SCSI chains or Mac extension conflicts, a more pervasive source of anxiety would regularly rear its head on online forums: money.

Non-linear edit suites weren’t just new in the sense that they were recently purchased.  They were new because they hadn’t existed before- and this posed a very basic business problem.  How do you decide what to charge for a completely new service?

With the lack of any clearly defined industry practices, the benchmark for anyone working in post-production remained the traditional post-production facilities.  Many companies with new non-linear suites based their pricing on existing facilities that hired out offline and online suites, and simply figured out where they thought they fit in.

As a very rough guide, in Melbourne in 1997 the cheapest and most basic tape-based offline edit suite would go for about $10 an hour.  As detailed in my desktop video revolution series, a high-end Quantel or Flame suite would be about $1,200 an hour.

The jump from $10 an hour for a cuts-only VHS tape suite to $1,200 an hour for a million dollar piece of equipment was pretty extreme, and didn’t really offer an indication of exactly where a new non-linear system should fit in.  In many cases the prices charged were more a reflection of the room size and the quality of the furniture than any technical capabilities, but by 1997 most new non-linear suites seemed to charge between $80 and $250 an hour.

But even this is a wide range, and it was always difficult to know if your rates were too high or too low.  It’s hard enough comparing the capabilities of different edit suites – in 1997 Media 100s, Avids and Cubes all had different strengths and weaknesses – so deciding if you should charge less for a Media 100 than an Avid was hard enough before worrying about the Flame suite up the road that came with a $3,000 espresso machine and a personal chef.

For Media 100 owners, the leap from offline-only VHS quality to online Digital Betacam quality came over a period of months with firmware updates and new versions of software.  Existing Media 100 owners had established a customer base around its offline capabilities, so it was difficult to know whether to change the prices to reflect the new capabilities.  How do you explain to a customer that the suite they hired last week is now an extra $50 an hour, just because you installed a software upgrade?  What if the customer only wanted offline editing?  Did you charge differently for offline and online quality – if so, how do you explain to the customer that exactly the same suite running exactly the same software is now costing them more just because you changed a setting in the menu?

What’s evident from internet forums and email lists from that time is that any time business and prices were discussed, there was always this underlying paranoia amongst non-linear editors that they were either charging too much and they would lose clients, or too little and they’d go broke.  Even though the suites were cutting-edge technology, there was a constant sense of anxiety amongst the owners that they were under-performing or simply not providing a good enough service for the money.

Another compounding issue was that online suites such as Quantel Henrys and Discrete Logic Flames were so expensive, and so exclusive, that few new non-linear editors had real experience with them, and many assumed they were much more capable than they really were.   It was a common assumption that these expensive online suites never had to render anything and that everything was done in real-time, which was definitely not true.  This meant that many of the people who had invested in a desktop non-linear suite weren’t just competing with other edit suites, but also against mythical supermachines that didn’t really exist.

While the hardware and software was evolving rapidly, business models were slower to adjust.  The new technology and expanded job description for a non-linear editor raised a number of new issues – especially for individuals who had set up their own non-linear suites and were self-employed.  The online forums and email lists of the time revealed a range of business issues that had nothing to do with hardware setups or technical support.

For example: the most immediately obvious difference between a traditional tape-based edit suite and a new non-linear suite was that a non-linear suite needed all the footage to be digitized into it first.  If you had 2 hours of footage, it would take at least 2 hours to log and digitize the footage into the system before editing could begin.

Even here- at step 1 – the process of digitizing provoked different approaches to billing.  Should digitizing be charged differently to editing?  Should you charge separately for the tape deck?  Do you try to digitize before the client arrives?

These were simple questions that prompted a wide range of responses and feelings from non-linear editors all around the world.  Over time the questions became broader- but the underlying issue was the same – am I charging too much, or not enough?  How is it that person X overseas can charge their client an extra $20 an hour for digitizing, while I charge $20 less?

Another example: In 1997 a copy of After Effects cost a lot less than a full video edit suite.  Even the most basic Media 100 suite could represent a $50,000 investment, while a high-end Avid suite could cost more than $200,000.  In comparison, After Effects version 3 was roughly $2,000 – 1/100th of the price of a full Avid system.  With this in mind, consider a common situation – a client is paying by the hour for the edit suite, but the editor uses After Effects to create titles and supers.  Should the client be charged less for the time it takes to do the titles, because they’re only using After Effects and not using the full edit suite, or should they be charged more for a graphic design service?  Or is it all part of the one suite and the one service?

Some of the more common questions – such as whether to charge for digitizing and rendering – were debated vigorously on online forums with no clear consensus.  Similar questions were posed about delivering compressed video files, or DVDs (do you charge by the time it takes to make them, or by a fixed rate per finished minute?)

These might seem like trivial questions now, but to someone running a business – especially someone self-employed – they were serious and very stressful considerations.  No one wants to lose a client and no one wants an unhappy client.  But more importantly, no one wants to feel undervalued, underpaid, and think they’re earning less than other people doing the same job.  What’s important to remember is that these questions don’t have a simple yes/no answer, but rather they reflect personal opinions, situations and market sectors that could be directly related to your own sense of worth and self-esteem.

If you ran your own business and went through the occasional quiet patch, it was often difficult to explain why.  Am I charging too much?  Am I simply not good enough?  Or some other reason?

Subsequently, working with the early non-linear suites could be very emotional. Yes they were cheap and groundbreaking, which was exciting.  But they could be unstable and unreliable, which was stressful.  And then there was always the slight paranoia and self-doubt about how the work you were doing compared to the work being done in traditional online suites that cost a lot more.  If you were an early-adopter and breaking new ground then it was difficult to know what the benchmarks were.

In many cases the problem came down to the fact that non-linear editing was a new profession, doing things that weren’t possible a few years earlier.  It was one thing to be a technical trailblazer with a new desktop editing suite, but another to make it commercially successful.

 

 


 

This phone call has never happened:

 

“Hi, It’s John from MicroBop, we need a new logo for our jingle division, so I was wondering if you have one of your Photoshop suites available for a few hours on Tuesday afternoon?  You do?  Great… Well it’s a big job, new logo for the company… I’d say we should be able to do it in about half a day… oh right, I hadn’t thought about all the business cards.  Let’s call it a day to be safe.  So who’ll be the operator on Tuesday?  No I don’t mind, last time it was Kylie and she was great… she’s booked out?  Sure, Steve will be fine.  Ok, see you Tuesday”.

That phone call has never happened because no design agency operates by hiring out computers with an operator by the hour.  And yet that’s how the video production industry worked for decades.  As video technology evolved throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, design became an increasingly important part of video production – but design and video production were two different worlds that had different histories, cultures and practices.  Depending on what you were doing, and who you were doing it for, the collision of these two worlds could be very confusing.

Far away from the requirement for expensive equipment in the film and TV world, the design world had evolved its own working culture.  Art and design has been taught for centuries, with established principles, work practices, and values that are very different from the hire-by-the-hour culture in the film and TV industry.  The design of company logos, letterheads, product packaging and overall branding has existed as an industry for much longer than the production of films and videos.

Unlike film and TV production, artists and designers don’t need very expensive equipment in order to work.  The quality of a design isn’t determined by a technical parameter or the type of equipment used.  Decades – and centuries – of art and design have taught that the single most import aspect of good design is a clear concept.  Coming up with a great concept doesn’t require a supercomputer or some specialized piece of software, generally it just requires some time to think and experiment.

Design agencies understand that the most difficult and time-consuming part of design is devising the basic concept.  Once the idea is in place then executing it – having signs, letterhead & business cards printed, for example – is pretty straightforward.  With the emphasis placed on the value of the idea, you could argue that design agencies are essentially billing their clients for thinking – a lot of time can be spent experimenting with a range of different options before focusing on one particular direction.

This critical aspect of agency culture acknowledges that time is still money, even if it’s spent flicking through books and magazines or just staring out the window.  The overall process to design a company logo, or re-brand an existing product, can take months or even years with the actual physical roll out (printing etc) being a relatively small part of that time.

Many years ago I pitched for a TVC campaign to launch a re-branded product range for a national company.  The design stage – re-branding the company’s entire packaging – had already taken over 12 months and it would be another six before the launch.

In the world of agencies and design, this is normal.

When I got my first job as a non-linear editor, I had never heard of After Effects. After Effects had been sold as an add-on to our Media 100 system, promoted as a more advanced option for generating text and titles. Many non-linear suites from the 90s couldn’t even do animated titles or scrolling credits.  Something that sounded simple, like building a set of text bullet points, could require a complex series of work-arounds.  Anything more needed a trip to After Effects, but After Effects was slow.

In 1997 you were considered cutting-edge if you knew how to blur text as it faded up.  After Effects was at version 3.1, and didn’t even have the ability to RAM preview.  The only way to get text in After Effects was with the ‘simple text’ plugin, which didn’t let you adjust leading or kerning.  Or you rendered out text as tiff files from Photoshop, which you couldn’t edit afterwards.

It wasn’t just the software that was primitive.  Video production and post-production was still being approached in the same way it had been for decades.  If a script required visual effects then it would often be one carefully planned and staged shot, destined for a Flame or Quantel suite.  Colour correction was only done on high-end TVCs.  Even though non-linear edit suites were new technology, they came with an old attitude – they were used to edit video.

From a personal perspective, I had been conditioned by the first few years of my first few jobs.  Although the non-linear suite I used every day was cutting edge in its own right, I thought of it purely as an editing tool.  Quantel, who were synonymous with high-end online tools, published their own magazine (“Clips”) that showcased the best graphics and animation work from around the world.  While I loved getting these magazines, and I’ve kept them as personal souvenirs from that time, they only reinforced my view that complex graphics, animation and visual effects could only be done in a Quantel or Flame suite.  Because I didn’t think it was possible for me to produce such work without those tools, I never aspired to.  In my edit suite it was hard enough to animate a list of text bullet-points, let alone think about anything more complex.

With non-linear editing and the emergence of desktop computers, the distinction between offline and online was dissolving, and the operators of these new desktop suites were developing skills as fast as the software was released.  Because these new edit suites were running on a computer, adding new features was as simple as installing an upgrade, or buying new software.  But it wasn’t just the software that gained new capabilities – the owners and operators of these suites were also acquiring the skills to use them, and as every new release could bring unexpected features and capabilities, in many cases these were skills they may never have intended to learn.

Someone who actively sought to become a video editor in the mid-90s may not have had any intention of learning how to mix audio, or layout text, but because these new non-linear suites began to offer these capabilities, the people operating them learned how to do it.

As the technology matured throughout the 1990s, the operator of a non-linear suite was becoming an offline and an online editor, a graphic designer and an animator, a sound engineer and a visual FX compositor, and possibly a DVD author and video compression expert too.

The significant aspect of this technological revolution is that an entire generation of professionals learned their skills as the technology enabled them to.  These people did not grow up aspiring to be DVD authors or video compression experts, because these jobs did not exist until the software used to do these things was released.

In a general sense this meant that most non-linear editors were self-taught, but there was a subtle difference.  Describing yourself as “self-taught” usually implies that there’s a traditional, formalized training process that has been deliberately eschewed.  With desktop video, however, everything was new and so established academic pathways didn’t exist.  Traditionally, an editor would study one course, a graphic designer a different course, and sound engineering was different again – so on.  The traditional paths to become an offline editor or an online editor were very different.  There wasn’t an established academic path that acknowledged these new edit suites could do everything.

Non-linear editors were learning how to use their new tools as they became available, and they were teaching themselves because that’s what everyone does when software upgrades came out.

While the rapid evolution of desktop video technology enabled an entire generation of editors to learn new skills as they needed to, the flip side was that many of the early adopters lacked experience in working with very high end tools – but more importantly, with high-end clients.

The first few years of my career presented a very steep learning curve, but the hardest lessons to learn had to do with issues beyond software and hardware.

 


I can’t remember exactly when it was, but I had a few years experience behind me and I had developed a solid understanding of After Effects.  I’m guessing it was around 1999.  A local production company had thrown a party to screen their latest showreel – it was always nice to go to these sorts of gatherings and meet with other people doing the same work – where everyone could enjoy the free beer and we could complain about our clients to each other.

As the company’s new showreel looped on a big TV, one piece caught my eye.  It was a TVC for a car, and it was unlike anything I had seen before.  It didn’t seem to be a conventional video – there wasn’t any live action footage in it, everything was graphics and effects, with a bunch of clever transitions.  I can still remember one effect that transitioned from moving white lines down the middle of a road to the white stitching on a black leather car seat, which I thought was brilliant.  I assumed the entire thing had been made in a Flame suite, and as I chatted to the guy who made it I said something like “that would take me a month to do in After Effects”.  He gave me a funny look and said “Actually it did take me a month to do in After Effects”.

This really blew my mind.  I was just joking.  It hadn’t occurred to me that a video like this could be made in After Effects.  I was still wearing the hat of a non-linear editor.  In my world, videos were made by shooting some footage and editing it in an edit suite.  After Effects was for titles and name straps… who ever thought of making an entire video in After Effects?  How would you even begin?

But even more than the basic concept of doing it in After Effects was the time frame… a month!  How on earth did they do that?  How do you charge a client for a month of using After Effects?  Does the client sit next to you the whole time?  Do you just get booked out and have to make this stuff up on the spot?

I thought of all the debates online about whether you could charge for rendering, and if you should charge the same for After Effects work as for editing.

In my limited experience, time spent using After Effects was time spent not editing, and I had always felt a sense of pressure to work as quickly as possible.  Sure, you could get nicer and more complex results with After Effects than you could with the built-in Media 100 titler, but time was money and the sorts of clients I had were often happy with the basic text I could generate quickly inside Media 100.  I had never spent more than a few hours on a title sequence.

So why was I struggling to charge for After Effects work if a company a few streets over could charge for an entire month?  How did that happen?  Did someone just phone up and book you out, and turn up and sit next to you for the next the four weeks?  Did they expect you to think of everything instantly?

I went home amazed, impressed, and totally confused.

If you had only worked in an environment where edit suites were hired out by the hour, it was unsettling to see pieces of brilliant motion graphics design and simply wonder how they got made.  Were there really geniuses out there who were capable of designing this stuff on the spot?

I had After Effects on my machine.  I knew how to use it in a basic sense, but I didn’t know it could be used for such incredible looking animations.  In my experience, with the types of videos I had worked on, I had no idea how After Effects could be incorporated into the very concept of a video production itself.

I eagerly collected the Quantel “Clips” magazines because they were the only source I had for motion graphics, so when I heard about an upcoming book on motion graphics – the first of its kind – I ordered it and studied every page.  As inspirational as it was – I still pull it out for reference now and again – I was again perplexed by the large number of people in the credits for each project.  It was starting to dawn on me that there were companies out there used to working in very different ways to what I was used to, and evidently working with very different budgets and time frames.

Something I found reassuring was that it wasn’t just me trying to figure this out.

After Effects forums and email lists have always had people asking ‘how do I do this’ – looking for technical guidance on which plugin or technique had been used on a particular spot.  But every so often the same question was posed from a production perspective- with the same question “how was this made” referring to pitching, planning, budgeting and management.

Even now, as we approach 2015, many of the questions I get asked about the projects I work on aren’t related to software but rather project management – how many people, doing what, for how long?

As someone who struggled with this throughout the 90s, I began to realize that a lot of the confusion was the result of a collision between two worlds – those worlds being the design and agency worlds and the film & TV worlds.  When objects collide there’s usually some sort of bang.  When cultures collide, there’s often just confusion.

The difficult lesson was realizing that there were many different worlds and cultures out there, and the environment that I was accustomed to working in wasn’t necessarily universal.

Right now, towards the end of 2014, I really don’t know if the exclusive world of online post production facilities still exists.  From a little Googling, it seems that Quantel exist more or less in name only, and while Flames are still sold – and still represent a significant investment – I’m not sure if the same type of by-the-hour facilities that I was first introduced to in 1997 still operate like that today.  I’m certainly not aware of any post production facilities in Sydney that advertise their own in-house chef.

While there has been an obvious evolution of desktop technology, the high-end market has also changed over time.  None of these changes happened instantly, and in many cases it’s only when we look back that we can see what’s happened.

It’s clear that in a general sense, desktop video technology made it possible to incorporate more and more design elements into video productions.  Even by the end of the 1990s software such as After Effects meant that anyone with a Mac could produce animations and graphics that even 5 years earlier were only possible in a million dollar Quantel or Flame suite.

Agencies and designers who had previously specialized in logo design, desktop publishing, packaging and other forms of traditional branding were now seeing the opportunity to extend into digital graphics.  Traditional design agencies approached new technologies with the same design process they always had, and many of them assumed that video was simply another digital avenue.  Time was spent coming up with ideas.  Ideas were refined, some selected, some rejected, clients were consulted until a decision had been agreed upon, and so on.  But developing the initial design concept was critical.

This was not how the film & television industry was used to working.  A TV commercials producer was used to phoning up a facility and booking out a piece of equipment for a period of time.  It would be expected that the operator of the equipment, who was included in the cost of the hire, would be competent and able to do everything the producer wanted.  Over time, producers would develop a working relationship with different facilities and would have their favourite places to go.

From 1997, when Avid and Media 100 released their “online quality” range, the non-linear editors who owned or operated these suites found themselves competing against high-end tools, high-end infrastructure, and established workflows.  The differences between these two worlds were generally reflected in the price charged, but lowering the cost didn’t mean that producers and design agencies automatically lowered their expectations or changed the way they were used to operating.

For many years still, producers expected titles, supers and other motion graphics to be completed in the edit suite as part of the post production process.  Because the distinction between offline and online editing had become blurred, an entire industry of offline editors were now expected to produce finished design elements in the same working environments they had always known.  Producers, directors and editors had been working on an hourly-basis for decades so that’s how titles, graphics and animation were initially treated.  Editors could be expected to come up with the look, feel and style of supers, title graphics and other animated elements as the client asked for them.

The problem was that this wasn’t how traditional designers were trained to work, and it certainly wasn’t the best way of creating high quality graphics.  It’s not surprising that non-linear editors could look at the titles and graphics they’d created in a few hours and feel they weren’t as polished as the motion graphics work showcased in books and magazines.  The difficulty was in understanding why.  If you had a client who was happy with what could be produced quickly then great – but if you were measuring yourself against the best in the world then these different work cultures only resulted in disappointment.

Of course it would be wrong to give the impression that all agencies were amazing and all non-linear editors were naive.  Everyone involved at every level was on the same learning curve, and the learning process never ends.  Agencies and producers struggled with new technology, budgets and clients just like everyone else.

Generally, though, the different working cultures of agencies and video producers were being brought together by the increasing demand for motion graphics in video production.  The use of motion graphics evolved from individual name supers or animated titles to overall concepts, looks, and art direction.  Techniques that had been developed by Hollywood for feature films were now being adopted by desktop motion graphics designers- and more importantly – these techniques were able to be shared on the internet.  The age of the tutorial had arrived.

On a personal level, by 2006 I had somehow made the transition from being a non-linear editor to being an After Effects freelancer.  This hadn’t happened intentionally, it’s just that over a period of time all of the jobs I was contracted to work on used After Effects, and eventually I realized I hadn’t done any editing work for several years and that I much preferred After Effects projects anyway.

But even in 2006 I was still biased by my first few years in the industry, and when Apple launched their iconic “lightstreaks” commercials for the iPod, I just assumed that they had been completed in some high-end system.  When Andrew Kramer released the Video Copilot tutorial that demonstrated how to make lightstreaks in After Effects, the penny finally dropped that desktop systems could be used to generate any effect, at any level.  The key was not just the tool used – hardware or software – but the attitude and approach to the production itself.  Of course the software is important to some degree, but the days when high-end exclusive hardware was the only way to produce high-end results were truly over.

Desktop video technology continues to evolve, and the internet remains an invaluable resource for professionals worldwide.  It’s still common to see questions such as “how did they do that” asked from a technical perspective, but also from a personal and business perspective.  Issues such as costs and time frames can still be confronting and uncomfortable, and it’s never easy to deal with a client who seems to want the world for free, right now.

Looking back, learning the software was the easy part – and as with so many things, the most important lesson was learning about how much there was to learn.


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Chris was born a geek, and was lucky enough to own a Commodore 64 at a time when the number of students at his primary school who owned a computer could be counted on one…

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