Monday Sep 03, 2007
So what is the editor's job..? Vegas 8 and production philosophy.
Along with new and expanded features every new release of a creative software tool carries with it a dichotomy of conceptual baggage - On one hand is the promise of new creative possibilities; that the new tool will allow the creator to do things that previously they could not. On the other hand is an ingrained philosophy embodied in the tool which dictates what the tool privileges as important.
In other words any given tool is invariably strong in the areas the designers feel most important and invariably weak in the areas perceived to be less important or of lesser significance. As Internet and software pioneer Ted nelson has commented - "you are a prisoner of each application you use. You have only the options that were given you by the developer of that application... So, what you can do in Microsoft Word is what Bill Gates has decided." This isn't rocket science or a radical idea but recognizing these inherent biases does allow for a more sophisticated and articulate rationalization of a software tool's functionality for your needs.
For example if we look at one of the most popular editing tools on the market, Apple's Final Cut Pro, we can make a relatively clear assessment of FCPs philosophical perspective. FCP is extremely strong on sequential editing arrangement and precision adjustment between shots, it's likewise very strong on on-line/off-line workflow and film match back. Conversely, audio production tools are very weak and very basic in FCP. What this combination of biased strengths and under-developed elements tells us is actually very clear - FCP is a tool who's philosophy is focused on traditional workflow. Audio tools in FCP are poor and rudimentary not because the software designers don't know how to make good audio tools but rather because the philosophical approach of the designers is that audio 'should' be done externally to the NLE edit in a different, dedicated software system and not inside FCP itself. Simply put, FCP doesn't need sophisticated audio tools because a traditional workflow seperates audio production from visual edit. This isn't about arguing whether a tool is good or bad, better or worse, but simply about identifying the internal philosophy of the tool based on what is privileged and what is neglected.
So with this coming week seeing the release of Sony's Vegas Pro 8 digital production software what can be deduced of Vegas' philosophical approach based on its new and existing feature set? Is Vegas pursuing a traditional philosophy of process or does it privilege and venerate a very different set of elements and thus a new conceptual paradigm of creative process?
This release sees version 8 answer two of the most requested and criticized elements of Vegas. But its not simply what the Sony development team have added in that users wanted; rather, much more importantly, is how they've been implemented and what this says about the internal philosophy of Vegas in comparison with other NLE production systems.
The duet of features in question that have been much requested for Vegas are an improved Titling tool and support for 10bit production formats. Until this version8 Vegas was purely an 8bit engine and the titler was often criticized as rudimentary and inflexible.
The titler has been upgraded substantially in version8 with an entirely new titling engine called ProType. But as I said its not just that there is now improved titling options; rather ProType goes far beyond the traditional parameters of a titling tool and this changes the philosophical bent of Vegas itself.
With ProType as much a comprehensive animation system as a titler, with individual control over each character, word and line, parent/child relationships, cascading keyframes, bezier curves, paths and generators; it moves out of the usually confined parameters in which NLEs operate. ProType in Vegas is now arguably the most sophisticated titling tool in any current NLE - and ive used and reviewed every NLE on the market.
But this of course raises those persistent questions about the roles and responsibilities of production positions and creative processes. Just as the internal philosophy of FCP says that comprehensive audio tools are simply not necessary in the NLE because 'that's Not the editor's responsibility', so too might the same argument be made that a tool like ProType, which in truth gives After Effects a run for its money as a titling system, is outside of the editor's responsibilities. A titler that complex is really a motion graphics tool more than a titler. In which case should it be left to a motion graphic artist? What does this say about the philosophical position of Vegas and how it perceives, and even dictates, the role of the editor?
Before answering that we should look to the second of the two much requested features of Vegas 8, that of expanded bit-depth production. Most of the worlds digital production formats are 8bit - DV, HDV, DVCProHD, AVCHD, XDCAM; all 8bit signal formats for aquistion. 10bit production, which expands the dataspace for things such as more accurate colour grading, and smoother effects production, is generally engaged by using dedicated capture hardware such those from AJA and Blackmagic to transcode the 8bit source to a 10bit file with more headroom. In many productions the advantages of 10bit might be arguably negligible but certainly there are gains to be had for fx heavy work and high precision colour grading. Of course there are also 10bit source formats for very high end work or, in a studio environment, you can shoot direct to hard drive as 10bit via a hardware capture card.
Vegas now has an end to end 32bit floating point engine. So is this simply a case of going for bigger numbers to impress or does it say something much more integral about Vegas' philosophical and conceptual positioning in regard to production and creative process? Having an 8bit or 10bit engine meets the needs of common hardware based firewire and SDI ingest for an editing workflow, but having a 32bit floating point internal engine puts Vegas into a slightly different class - not a 'better' class as such (theres more technical juggling in here which I'll steer clear of for the moment) but a different working methodology. Editing systems have generally not sported a need for 32bit float processing but compositing and effects tools such as After Effects do, production tools beyond the edit timeline have long taken advantage of expanded bit depth and dataspace than editors have not needed because of a traditional segmentation in the workflow process.
What this might say bout the Vegas workflow philosophy is that Vegas is a tool not at all attached or adhering to the traditional divisions between production processes. Where other NLEs reinforce traditional workflow segmentations, Vegas makes almost no distinction between where editing ends and motion graphic compositing begins. Just as the fact that Vegas has had surround sound mixing and a 24bit 96khz audio engine right on the same timeline as the video edit for the past 5 years - well ahead of audio tools in any other NLE - also shows a profound disrespect for the traditional separation of powers between video edit and sound edit.
This integrated approach is not just in the features on offer but more importantly in the engine room mechanics Vegas employs. Embracing an open 32bit floating point engine is arguably an extremely forward thinking perspective focused on what production workflow might be in the future rather than what it is has been in the past.
So, how does Vegas perceive editing and the role of the editor?
Its for these reasons I have over the years found Vegas such an exciting tool to use. Whilst Adobe have shown some great direction in integration and broad delivery options (which i have written about many times), it is the developers of Vegas who have, in many ways, been the most brave and forward thinking in their design of a tool that dares to re-think the paradigm of production itself in an environment where most other NLE developers seem content with simply making old workflows digital without a change on conceptual philosophy.
This is of course not say that an integrated, non-segmented approach to production is right for everyone or every type of production. There will always be editors who wish to remain focused. But just as an argument can be mounted that saids remaining focused as a specialist on one element of production and not distracted by extraneous elements might lead to a more refined process; there is an equally strong case to argue that an edit informed by and in tandem concert with the sound design and the visual effects is a much better informed process producing a tighter more cohesive final product.
Both arguments have weight and creative media makers should always seek to find the process and tools that match their needs and perspective. But I would certainly say this; where once there was effectively one mode of cinematic process we now have a much wider palette or process options available to us. Subsequently the idea of an 'industry standard' tool is utterly absurd in the digital age as it implies there is only one 'correct' way to work, only one 'correct' philosophy of creative process. And that's something no creative person should stand to tolerate.