The Dream Machine: Using Avid in TV Production

Mark R. Smith

The advance billing was in concert with reality. Avid was such a hit that reverberations of its advent reached beyond traditional post facilities, making video editing palatable to a broader audience – which included the highpressure world of political consultants.

A NEW DREAM MACHINE revolutionized the media post-production industry a decade ago. Along with it came smiles to the faces of many a video editor who had spent year upon year slaving laboriously on time-eating and downright quirky analog tape contraptions.

The new technology was, of course, nonlinear editing. The Avid, specifically.

On this occasion, the advance billing actually was in concert with reality. It was such a hit that reverberations of its advent reached beyond traditional post facilities, making video editing palatable to a broader audience- which included the high-pressure world of political consultants.

Today, not only are political agencies taking advantage of Avid’s time-saving capabilities in post houses, but many that never dreamt of offering in-house editing own one as well.

To say that those consultants’ efforts have been greatly accentuated by the technology is an understatement. With 10 years’ experience under their belts, the question now posed concerns how those political consultants can use the Avid to their maximum benefit.

The Good Old Days?

Being able to make changes to political spots so quickly that a Monday evening attack on a client could be answered by the Tuesday morning news was only a pipedream back in the 1980s, observed Steve Lipton.

A senior editor at Henninger Media Services in Arlington, Va., Lipton pointed out that such quick fixes were anything but back in those days. “Now we already have footage that could be used in a rebuttal already on the hard drive, and it’s easy to make different versions of different spots so we can counter quickly,” he stated.

It seems a far cry from when Lipton started in the business. “When I was an assistant in the early ’90s at another firm, I worked with an editor who had a rep as a good animator, too, named Roy Weinstock. He works with me at HMS now. If you didn’t put the analog reel up fast enough, he’d emerge from the smoke-filled suite and bark, ‘What the hell is going on here?,’ Lipton laughed.

“When I asked him what was wrong and if he liked editing,” he continued, “he’d yell, ‘I’d rather stick needles in my eyes!'”

That may be how many political consultants felt when they had to pull an all-nighter cutting tape as well. “I used to cut 1-inch analog tapes,” Lipton recalled. “We would load a reel, scan through it and hope that the right footage was there.” As arduous as it was, it still wasn’t cheap- about $400 per hour at the time. Toys for effects could run another $300.

Fast forward to today, however, and see what a difference a decade makes. Henninger now has eight Avid Media Composers and two Symphonys. By comparison, to cut at low-res on the Avid is generally up to $150 an hour. High-res runs a bit more. “It’s kind of an all-you-can-eat video buffet,” smiled Chef Lipton.

He offers this recent example that also illustrates how quickly a client can disappear. “We worked on the recent John McCain presidential campaign with Stevens Reed Curcio & Co. One thing we did with him was set aside several specific drives that held pictures, sound and audio information that were readily available at all times,” he explained, noting the Avid Media Composer’s ability to store information by simply adding hard drives that each hold nine gigs. “We can carry them from room to room, even. It’s great for different versions and changes.”

Lipton said editors save audio files to disk in a file format. That allows loading of audio tracks without having to go back to the tapes. “What often happens is that I give the editor the Edit Decision List for the finishing room, while they work on the audio files. Two rooms work at once and maximize time, which is nice when things get tense.

What about the finished product? “Generally, the great thing about the Avid is that you can send a low-res spot off and let the consultant see it first. Then they decide on whether they want to finish it off at high-res or not.”

Picking Their Spots

High-res, or not high-res? That question has sparked an animated debate or three about what Avid to use, or whether or not to use the Avid at all.

Nick LaGrasta saw a bit of evolution in the last election cycle two years ago. “That’s when we saw a real breakout of people doing direct outputs from an Avid Media Composer, at the max compression rate,” said the fellow senior editor, who works with Lipton at Henninger’s Arlington headquarters. “For the budget they have and life of the spot, the lower image quality was comparable to Beta SP and perfectly acceptable.”

While the low-res spots often, as people say, “work,” it’s important to note that political spots have gotten more complex than they were a few years ago. “Some political spots have complicated graphics these days,” LaGrasta continued. “They’re done with more text and layering. So, in one sense, when the producers are doing that type of spot, they really aren’t using the Avid. Once you get past three or four layers, the Avid isn’t as fast as they would like.”

LaGrasta (“You can always tell it’s been a tough campaign when you see people in the facility dressed in the same clothes for three straight days,” he laughed) stressed that while it’s still a very good tool for the consultants, it simply doesn’t apply to every spot they do.

“Avid’s better for spots with simple text layers and simple effects, just in terms of efficiency. But when the graphics are more complicated, we steer clients to a Quantel Henry or Edit Box, or Discreet Logic smoke,” he said.

Still, some producers won’t go there. They stand by their Avid. “They want every thing in real time. So we have some resistance from that end, which I think is kind of foolish. They may wind up with the same product eventually, but it’s harder to achieve,” he explained. “There are more limitations in the online room that way, like having to change tapes and having to burn down multiple layers.”

Consultants Chime In

Paul Wilson is able to offer a unique view on the rise of the Avid in the political world. The CEO of Wilson Grand Communications, in Alexandria, Va., bought the first nonlinear editing system of any political consultant and aired the first spot directly from the Avid at what he laughed and termed “a long time ago.”

Like LaGrasta, he stressed the Avid has its place. “It’s not as good as the Edit Box. The Avid Symphony (another box that works on an NT platform) is getting there. But what we’re seeing now is the Avid’s resolution, especially with the Meridian upgrade (which is version 10.0 and is due on the market soon), is great. You can’t tell a difference.”

The advantages, he continued, are that almost every spot now can come from the Avid to air at extremely high quality, even with the Media Composer, which is what most consultants have.

Also, the whole Avid and non-linear world allows the user to keep track of much more material. “We have 8,000 different shots that are accessible from our library, with a frame of video. So, we can repurpose footage when we want to go back and find a certain shot for a certain spot.”

The disadvantage, he said, is that using an Avid is perhaps a little harder than some people understand. “The Avid is only as good as the editor,” Wilson stated. “If you own one, you need a pro to run it. It’s a serious piece of equipment and not something you simply make cuts on so you can send out the rough cut or spot. And the more you learn about it, the more you come to realize how sophisticated the equipment is.”

Still, it’s those tools people love. “The big thing is, there are so many consultants with an Avid,” he observed. “For example, users used to have to go to an audio suite to compress sound to shorten the length of an announcers’ read. Now, you can do it on the Avid. A 30-second read can be 29 seconds, and it doesn’t change the pitch to make him sound like Donald Duck. That used to cost $200 to fix.”

Here’s another observation. Two years ago, instead of Fed Exing a spot to a client, Wilson’s firm e-mailed it. It took 45 minutes to upload as well as download. Now it’s about one minute either way. Part of that is higher speed data lines, “but it is also new compression technology that you can incorporate right into the Avid.”

The versatility aspect of the Avid is only getting better with the upgrades. “We just bought a broadcast quality Avid Meridian 10.0, which has 3-D one-to-one output with an Ultra Ice that has 90 effects,” such as CineLook, which gives video a film image, said Peter Hutchins, director of production at Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Burns & Assoc., in D.C., who added that it’ll “be nice to be able to work on spots to completion in house.”

And, as mentioned, there are others who just want that quick rough cut, when a 30-second spot may take just four hours to edit.

“Basically, the way we use it is rough cutting our spots and just try to match up shots to go with the script,” said Production Manager Jay Payne from Stevens Reed Curcio & Co. in Alexandria, Va.

“I’ve found that when we work on something in the Avid, it cuts the online suite time in half since you aren’t spending time looking for visuals. You are creating graphics and outputting the final spot.”

Still, Payne is aware of the need for political agencies to make spots that look sharp, no matter the competition. And, as he pointed out, it isn’t only each other.

Political spots compete against not only other political spots, he observed, “but the rest of the spot world, too, and many of them are created with the highest possible quality video and technology. We don’t have the budget the corporate types have and I think the Avid saves us enough money that we can compete.”

And that competition starts in the post suite, said Michael Broder, managing principal of Brightline Media, who noted that all candidates are on very tight budgets. And for those who are tighter than others, the Avid greatly increases the money available to use later in the campaign.

“The real race begins in mid-September, so you don’t want to spend the majority of your war chest before then,” he said. “By using the Avid first, you save the money. You can have the best campaign strategy around, but the fact is, nothing ever goes as planned in politics.”

The Good News

From his perspective, Lipton can see these points. “The consultants see the convenience and some have them, but not all have someone on staff to operate them. And when they need a pro to edit a spot, they have to call and get one.

“Some consultants only work on one spot at a time, but others even bring their Avids here to Henninger when they’re involved in five or six races at once and need to be on the stick.

It’s a different video world than it was in 1990, that’s for sure. And as for Mr. Weinstock, Lipton said his attitude has been completely adjusted.

“Now he likes editing better,” said Lipton. “And he no longer needs protective eye gear before making such vows.”

Mark R. Smith has been writing about the post-production field for a decade. His work has appeared in such trade magazines as In Motion, Markee, Post and Television Broadcast. He resides in Crofton, Md., but will soon relocate to nearby Odenton.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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