The philosophy of the tools
Blaming the hammer for the problems of the digital house
In the digital age where mass-media consumption is matched by popular mass-media production and distribution; the relationship we, as creators, have with the tools we use has never been more significant. Whilst it is certainly true that a good carpenter never blames their hammer - there is also a sheer complexity and intricacy in the relationship between ‘media-maker’, ‘media-making technology’ and ‘what we make’ with that technology that is far more complex than old adages about carpenters can account for.
Having been a media producer and media-technology journalist for many years now - having worked across every format, medium, system, platform and product - what has become clear to me is that the nature of the tools we choose to use both informs, and is informed by, the conceptual and even philosophical approach to the creative work itself. More particularly, in choosing a particular tool you invariably select a pre-determined methodology. Tools are created by people and each person has their own utopia (be it grand or meek); a vision of the way things should and could be. Choosing a particular tool means unavoidably aligning to that vision, subsequently you are ‘buying into’ someone else’s utopia, to their perspective on how things should be…. If it’s a utopia you share then all is well and good. If its a utopia fundamentally odds with your own desires, ambitions and perspectives then the digital carpenter may well be better served by decrying the hammer and casting it down.
Arguably few, apart from myself perhaps, consider their creative software and hardware choices in such a convoluted and overly-cerebral light. Many, even most perhaps, have no tangible or conscious choice at all and simply utilise the tools they are provided and then remain with them out of ‘habit’ and ‘familiarity’ (the two great scourges of human development and progress). But the choice is none the less there and very real in impacting upon not only What and How you create but also the perception of what and how you Can and even Should create…?
In that light I plan to present here some ideas and perspectives on the tools and technologies I believe to be, on one hand, forward thinking and dynamic in terms of challenging and re-conceptualising how media is made; and on the other those tools that bog us down into a restricted notion of how cinema can be made. Similarly I hope to provide some perspectives on how they tools can be perceived in terms of their conceptual approach and the particular utopia’s they represent.
“It is quite feasible to produce a film without actors, but a film without a camera is a sheer impossibility.” Vagn Börge1
The centre of cinematic media production traditionally has, of course, been the camera as both source of moving image acquisition and primary tool for the construction of meaning through composition with all the parameters of the mise-en-scene. But in the digital-age the humble camera, in all its forms (from still to celluloid, to digital), has taken a large and significant step back from centre stage. After many dalliances the camera, as we traditionally know it - a mechanical apparatus - has become distinctly and forever a cinematic ‘option’ rather than a cinematic principle. In 1962 when the above quote was issued its basis was evident. Even animation, rightly argued by many as the parent of cinema rather than the child, was a camera-based medium and indeed (short of shadow puppets and flick-books) could not exist without a camera to capture the sequential steps to produce the persistence of vision that is the cinematic effect.
But in the current age where 3D spaces are ’shot’ with virtual cameras defying physicality and animation is ‘captured’ by motion sensors the camera has stepped back from its position of indispensable technical necessity and become simply one means among others to capture and compose a moving image.
But nature abhors a vacuum and into the space left by the camera’s absence we see the digital editing system, more precisely the Non-Linear Editing system (NLE), step up to become the common lynch-pin of all cinematic forms. Whether animation, live-action, machinima, 3D, video gaming or motion graphics – the system by which order is assembled, images sequenced and layers created is the hub to which all other tools feed and draw from. Where once the process of editing was a final stage of assembly it has now grown into the genesis point of a vast array of cinematic constructs. Now, unlike ever before, a film can literally start life in post-production and the distinction between where production ends and post-production begins has never been more arbitrary irrelevant.
But it is here in the world of NLE’s that we see some of the most divisive patterns in how the tools are perceived and engaged with in the larger context of industry practice, media acquisition, creative approach, workflow systems and delivery diversity. Each NLE system brings with it a heavy dose of its own utopian vision, its own distinct biases as to what is possible and what is not, what should be done and what should not and, moreover, how they should be done and how they should not.
It is into this idea we throw the inevitable weight of corporate desire – the desire to market, the desire to promote, the desire to bamboozle, to spin and manipulate the perspective of potential users. The corporate desire to coerce and indoctrinate users into a cult-like mindset of brand-loyalty that is the macro-utopia of all software development corporations. Sadly this desire is rarely based on the real strength of the tool and its capabilities but merely on which company can out-bluster the competition into making users believe their tool is the be-all and end-all of production.
Worse still, into this mix blows the abhorrent notion of an ‘industry standard’ tool (which invariably all companies claim they alone produce), a concept and term that, by its very nature, implies there is only one way to work, one way to produce and that this way is the end of the search… “Thanks for coming, you can all go home now, we’ve found the industry standard. No need to look any more…!” This mode of thinking is the very death of progress, the death of lateral thinking, the death of re-considering the possibilities. What’s more it places the user thoroughly at the mercy of the software developer, blithely accepting what the developer believes is important because the user perceives that to change tool would be to move away from the ‘industry standard’ and we cant have that now can we? The world would fall apart. All media production as we know it would cease. Your vision will never come to projected life if you’re not using an ‘industry standard tool’..!
This may sound like more than a touch of cynical absurdism but the truth is evident in the field when we begin to break down NLE’s into the Utopian perspectives they hold dear and the direction their attentions are facing; forward to a cinematic future, or stagnantly to well established past?
Up until this point I’ve avoided mentioning any particular software titles, instead focusing on the abstract that is applicable to all. And thus I hold these truths to be self-evident – That all software developers do, whole-heartedly, desire and pro-actively encourage deathly blinkered, mindless ignorance in their users and an express monogamous relationship to the exclusion of all others. There is no argument against this for it is simply in their ‘own best interests’ to do so. They can hardly be blamed for it. For any company to feel differently would be a deliberate disservice to their shareholders. Similarly all companies have used, and/or continue to use, the words ‘industry standard’ in their marketing and this too tars them all with same arrogant and obstructionist brush of promoting a sentiment that there is ‘no way but their way’ (there is no God but God and his name is – insert NLE title here)
But that said, distinctions can be made amid the cluster of NLE’s and value judgments can be leveled once we abolish all mention of an ‘industry standard tool’ and accept that NLE developers have no agenda but business and the business is making happy share-holders. How they achieve that is NOT by making a product that everyone wants because it’s a great product but something much more simple and effective - by making a product that they can convince everyone is the only sensible choice if you want to be a ‘professional’ or part of an ‘industry standard’.
So, having established that, what distinctions can we make about some of the current NLE systems; these central unifying hubs of the cinematic process that offer such enormous creative opportunity…? We can begin by recognizing the history of cinematic production process; the legacy of how the movie making process developed and entrenched itself. By doing so we unearth a few key principles that many current NLE’s hold as cornerstones of their construction but which on examination may be less than relevant or useful in a re-considered media-scape.
The traditional cinematic production process owes a great deal to Henry Ford, and Hollywood, whose mechanisms have dominated and influenced all other world cinemas for the better part of a century, long ago embraced the compartmentalized production line approach. Here each element of production and in particular, post-production, functions as a discrete entity, a cog in a larger engine. Footage edit, dialogue editing, effects production, sound design, titles, score, output. Each part of this process – whether massive budget features or small budget indies – handled not only by a discrete individual or team but by distinct, separate and apart technological processes which subsequently utilise separate and distinct tools.
An editing system is used to edit. Visual effects systems used for visual effects. Sound recording and sequencing tools for sound design… There’s nothing radical about this idea of a segmented, linear and hierarchical approach to production where each part can only really begin when the previous part is complete and where each process demands a new tool born of specialization. Whilst the tools have changed enormously the process and its natural divisions of labour and process have not. It makes sense and is still the dominant workflow form across all sectors of media production.
The question however then becomes about the future, or indeed current, state of cinematic media production and the ongoing validity, usefulness or functionality of this model. This question in turn then empowers the yardstick by which to measure the Utopian perspective of an individual tool (and those that develop it). Is the NLE in question one that builds its core vision of how cinematic production should work in the vein of established models of segmented, linear, compartmentalized and hierarchical modes? Or is the NLE one that reconsiders its personal utopia, taking to heart new and altered perspectives on how cinematic form can, should, or perhaps even already is, begin considered?
There are of course a myriad of NLE systems on the market, all of which will continue to grow, evolve and merge into the future. Each one carries its own version of cinematic production utopia encapsulated by its strengths and focuses. And each one invariably plays to or against the established workflow model in greater or lesser degrees. Alas, however, the NLE market can often seem a lot like the market for computer operating systems. There are in fact hundreds of variations and different types of personal computer operating system but most people will never realise there are any other than two. With NLE’s it is the much venerated names of Avid and Final Cut Pro. Both the public perception and subsequent user-base for these two tools is enormous and the two systems hold a perceived dominance that seems a virtual exclusion of all others. But here there are three questions to be asked - 1) are these two respective tools in a position of dominance and popularity simply because they are ‘that much better’ than the others? 2) Do these tools hold a utopia in-line with a traditional production schema or a forward thinking new perspective? And, pending the answers to the first two, do they deserve the venerated position they hold?
The central problem with the traditional model is the vast array of inflexible assumptions it makes about how production should be; the utopian ideals of the traditional model are very exacting. One of the key areas of a traditional workflow, and the NLE that evokes it, is built on an assumption of input and output standardization and uniformity.
These systems assume that your source media is all the same format and that it matches your output. And moreover that your output is one of singular delivery. It took a long time (too bloody long) for FCP and Avid to have any real ability to mix events of different formats, codecs or resolutions on the timeline and frankly neither program still does it anywhere near as well as it should or as well as other NLE”s such as Vegas and Premiere Pro do and have done for a long time.
This assumptive framework is all well and good if you work in a production environment where you can guarantee your source and expectations of output. Many of course do work in such environment but its hard to argue that this guarantee of singularity is not quickly disappearing. The problem with this framework is that, in the digital age of hybridized and diversified acquisition and delivery; of multi-platform scalable environments, of a huge diversity of delivery devices which are not sequential but parallel (i.e. the same project might appear simultaneously as broadcast, on-line webcast and mobile device download), this assumption doesn’t hold a lot of water. Likewise your sources could be everything from HD and HDV, DVCProHD, XDCAM, to DV, highly compressed mpeg and video from a mobile phone… And all of them have to coexist.
The traditional notion of a line dividing that which was ‘broadcast quality’ with that which is Not is rendered arbitrary and obsolete. When all the images of the World Trade Centre coming down are bad handycam and the London bombings are mobile phone footage, when feature films can be made on cell phone cameras we have to rethink not only our approach to constructing media but also re-evaluate the tenants and frameworks by which the developers of our tools function by.
Add to this the ever increasingly media literacy of the broader populous, not only as Consumers of media but, every increasingly through the simple ubiquitous position of computers in our lives, as Producers of media – and we have a culture where the notion of ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ in terms of media making is a very hard, and largely pointless, one to discern. If for no other reason than those who would otherwise be defined amateurs will widely consider and think of themselves and the projects they make as professional anyway.
As the Digital Immigrants give way to the Digital Natives (quoting Marc Prensky) the need, and subsequently the market, for distinctly ‘consumer’ video products is going to significantly shrink. Maybe not in the next 5 years but a decade from now will be a very different landscape in regard to what users expect of their products driven by how they perceive of themselves and their ability to engage with media creation.
The media production future that I would bet my house on is one where any tool that is format restrictive, that cant scale to work on any hardware, that cant utilize any media source, and which places arbitrary distinctions between ‘professional’ features and amateur ‘features’ is a tool doomed to failure.