Skillfully Talented or Talentedly Skillful

The video industry historically has been driven by technologists. I’m not referring to the technologists who have invented and developed all the products that allow those waves of light to be converted into electronic signals formerly and now bits, manipulated, and ultimately delivered to a growing number of different screens. I’m thinking more about all of the individuals who produced the content we consume today. Where am I going with this? Why am I being so cryptic? Do I get paid by the word to write this blog (NO I am not paid for those who don’t know my sense of humor). Get to the point, Steve! What’s this got to do with skills and talent?

Well first lets define what my understanding of the differences are. This is probably an oversimplification (need to save on word count somewhere), but talent is something one is born with and skills are something that are not innate but you can learn.

Back in the early days and as late as 1981-82, your ability to work in the television industry was primarily driven by your skills, talent was a secondary consideration. If you couldn’t learn to “operate” (there’s a reason they were called Chyron operators and not artists) the equipment and all the buttons, knobs, and dials, if didn’t really matter what your sense of typography aesthetics was. For a video editor who didn’t have the luxury of having a “tape operator” at their disposal, not only did they need to figure out how to “operate” the edit controller, but they also need to figure out how to thread typically a Sony BVH-2000 series or an Ampex VPR. Betacam cassettes solved that part of the skill set in the pro video space in 1982 (I don’t consider 3/4″ cassette was generally considered industrial quality). Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a lot of these skilled operators were also very creative and talented, but without the technical chops, a lot of talented people were sitting on the sidelines unable to participate in expressing their creativity using video.

What happened in 1981-1982? Well, Quantel introduced the Paintbox. While it was a technological marvel, for me it was the first piece of video equipment that was designed to be appeal and be accessible/approachable to “artists” not “operators” (sadly when the Harry came out – users who mastered this piece of gear more than not were called Harry Operators). Everything from the pen based UI, tasteful use of colors, and UI metaphors were designed to be comfortable and familiar to artists. Talented people were allowed to flourish and express themselves, and the “skills” aspect was de-emphasized. Designers just want to design.

When Photoshop 1.0 appeared on the scene in 1990 it brought talent even further to forefront. Because even though the Paintbox enabled artist to participate in the video creation process more directly; with a price tag of several hundred thousand dollars – it was unlikely an individual was gonna set up shop in their garage. And while I’m reluctant to make generalizations – I hope it is not too contentious to say, artists/designers do not come to mind as prototypical “Organization Men” and are more likely to be independent free spirits who would prefer not to work for “da man”.

The desktop video revolution unshackled artists from having to work in a structured environment and to define work to a large degree on their own terms. But it also reduced the “skill level” requirement a notch further as software products in general adopted common UI metaphors and computers (especially the Mac) were considered even more user friendly than sitting in front of a proprietary UI running on a big “black box”. That said, in all fairness, when I look at how complex Photoshop CS3 has become as result of all the features added over the years and the diverse set of users and applications it is used for, I would venture to guess that there are almost as many opportunities for “skilled” Photoshop users as there are “talented”.

If we fast forward to the world of video and interactive content creation today, I see some parallels. While Flash and After Effects are incredibly powerful products there is a “learning curve” associated with those products that may make artists/designers who do not spend the bulk of their time working in the video or interactive design space hesitant to make the investment required to use these products to their full extent. Don’t assume this is an aptitude problem. In some cases it may be (drawing with a pen and writing AS3 are 2 very different disciplines/mindsets), but I believe it is as much an issue of time. Our lives are more complex than ever and there is still only so much time in the day. So in the minds of these artists/designers the ROI on diving into these products isn’t justified – so once again we are in a place where many talented designers/artists are sitting on the sidelines waiting for the day when they can participate in the interactive rich media revolution.

Food for thought….

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