January 29, 2007
Low-Cost Tools in Media Production - Hype or Hope?

After acclaimed film editor Walter Murch's proof-of-concept use of Apple's Final Cut Pro for editing Return to Cold Mountain in 2003, a second, more bizarre attempt at using commercial off-the-shelf software for professional media production has come to public attention: guitarist and producer Ry Cooder mastering his latest album using the 'sound enhancer' feature built into iTunes. While both stories have much news value, a factor that should not be neglected after all, these episodes allow for a critical look at the perceived 'democratization' of professional media production and changes in workflow and production rationales.

Walter Murch's work on 'Return to Cold Mountain' using Final Cut Pro already spawned a dedicated book which, apart from celebrating Murch's technological achievement, presents one of the most detailed look at professional post-production so far. After encouraging the shift towards using the Avid Film Composer (on Minghella's The English Patient) in the 1990s, Murch again seems poised to change the paradigm of film editing, returning to Final Cut Pro (the then-new version 5) for the movie Jarhead, capitalizing e.g. on the newly implemented previewing functions.

In an early paper recommending the adoption of digital editing in the late 1960s, Murch already hinted at the profound implications on the workflow since the contemporary systems could only handle ~4 minutes of material at a time and required new planning models. The use of FCP implicitly necessitates similar considerations; e.g. Murch mentions Apple's support for the open XML protocol and the unencrypted Quicktime format as vertices of the contemporary editing process.

Ry Cooder now seems to attempt to trigger a similar rethinking of production in the music industry, although his example will probably not have an equally profound impact at first. One important factor that Cooder himself noticed is that standardized mastering tools by now make the results "sound processed" (since apparently the ear becomes accustomed to subtle, normalized sound parameter changes which we wouldn't even be able to verbalize) which can both be desirable and problematic. Another important criterion is the fact that music 'mastered' using the iTunes feature apparently sounds great on iTunes which is certainly different from an expensive hi-fi system and might come closer to the current 'default' recipient's situation.
Apparently there seem to be both elements of hype and hope for innovative experiences and workflow solutions in the recent shift towards COTS production tools.


On January 30, 2007 at 12:02 PM, Charles Koppelman said:

Thank you Stefan Werning, for your thoughtful comments and for referring to my book on Murch editing Cold Mountain, "Behind the Seen." Glad to have stumbled upon MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. Interesting to note that even established directors (David Lynch in this case) are now utilizing Apple's FCP to start editing their own movies ("Inland Empire"). A good or bad thing for their movies to be created without the benefit of an editor?