Why I Love AVID But Won’t Make the Switch

Recently, I had an email exchange with an AVID representative and it gave me an excuse to write out a lot of things I’ve been meaning to put down for a while, about editing No Matter What, Bots High and some of the things I learned during the process. I’d like to go more in-depth with some of this and may at a later date. Below, I’ve posted the bulk of the email exchange, please excuse the rough formatting.  

My DIY AVID stickers from 2007

A little necessary back story about me and where I’m coming from, if you’re late to the game. In January of last year, I edited an indie feature called No Matter What, which will premiere at the 2011 SXSW film festival. We cut the film on Final Cut and it was a series of endless frustrations. We shot both on the RED and on the Canon 7D and the mixed formats were a serious problem for the duration of our 3 month edit.

Immediately after No Matter What, I edited a feature-length documentary called “Bots High,” again on Final Cut Pro. And again, it was the source of constant headaches. We had over 100 hours of HD footage and the system was unstable and required a number of jerry-rigs and workarounds to accomplish the task. We lost weeks of productivity to a slew of problems. We persevered and Bots High is now making festival rounds, with its world premiere set to happen February 26th during the Bots IQ National Competition in Miami.  

I’m originally an AVID editor; I was trained on AVID at the FSU Film School and I spent the first three years of my career as the staff editor at an AVID based TV station. Knowing AVID got me my first job and I remain a big fan.

Avid Media composer

Avid Media Composer 5.0

1. how/why did you guys make the decision to go with Final Cut Pro?

Re: Bots High – we chose FCP because we’d heard that Walter Murch‘s assistant editor used FileMaker Pro to build a complicated shot database that integrated into FCP using XML. We set up something similar and it worked great. It was the rest of the editing that was a debacle.

Re: No Matter What – When I came onto the project, a lot of the post decisions had already been made – I think the production company had a way of working that had gone smoothly before and thought they would just transfer the workflow, using what they already had available. This was ill-considered, and we ran into a bunch of issues that could have been avoided with a little more foresight. On my part, I’d never edited RED footage nor DSLR footage before this, although I’d sat through a few edit sessions and observed the process. I’d gotten a lot of conflicting information regarding RED footage  (some people transcoded, others used the proxy files, etc) and all of it was FCP based. It was pretty much assumed we’d cut on FCP and being a multi-platform editor, i was fine with that. Also, at the time I had zero experience with the formats we were using so I hadn’t developed any strong opinions about how best to handle it all. I went with the accepted wisdom and decided I’d learn as I went along.

2. Was Media Composer considered?

Re: Bots High – No. The FileMaker Pro database was the deciding factor, and the director had already encoded his 100 hours of XDCAM EX to ProRes, so we were sticking with FCP.

Re: No matter what – Yes, but much too late in the process to be feasible. I arrived on set a week after production started and was tasked with organizing the dailies and cutting up to picture. I was a week behind the shoot, so the first few days were long ones, lasting 18, 20 hours at a stretch. Two of the days had me sleeping in my editing chair and working round the clock to figure out a system that would work. This is when I learned the extent of the mess we were in and started to develop strong opinions about how to avoid it next time. This is also when I brought up the idea of using AVID instead of FCP.

In order to cut the movie, I’d taken leave from my job as an editor at Miami’s AVID based PBS station and my experience there was generally positive. We used XDCAM discs and the AVID proxy workflow was a dream to me. I loved the simplicity of the lo-res proxy files and the ease of high res-ing. I loved the tiny file sizes and media management. By contrast, I hated FCPs XDCAM workflow and felt that AVID must have a better solution for the task at hand.

So I mentioned to the producer that I was proficient on AVID, and while I didn’t know for sure that the workflow was better and had no idea how it would integrate into the color timing process, i was confident it would be a better solution than the options before me. We had a conversation about it and answered many of the above questions but ultimately decided to tough it out and stick with FCP.

This decision was influenced by several things:

  1. We had six computers on hand (at least) and all of them had FCP. Not one had Avid. Our DIT station was FCP, our edit station was FCP, our DP’s laptop was FCP. My laptop was FCP only, our producer (FCP) and our director (FCP). Although we had different versions so not all were compatible, it was infinitely easier for us move media when everything stayed FCP. If they needed to pull up a scene on the DIT station on set, they used FCP. I could cut something together, email the project file and the could attach the media – AVID would have disrupted this.
  2. We were in Chipley, FL and the closest store that would stock AVID was 90 minutes away in Tallahassee or 2.5 hours away in Jacksonville. We would have had to ship a copy and we would have lost more time waiting and then transitioning. Since I’d already worked out a solution using FCP and could implement it immediately, I would be up and running before AVID even arrived.
Now, in case you’re curious, these are a few things I learned about working with RED, DSLRs and Final Cut Pro. *(true as of January 2010)

  1. In order to edit H264, you have to transcode to another format, preferably Apple ProRes. This is a 1:1 process. An hour of footage takes an hour to transcode. Ugh.
  2. If you “bake” R3D files into another format (Apple ProRes) you lose access to the 4K original files, thereby downgrading the image permanently. It is also extremely time consuming (I’ve heard anywhere from 2:1 to 30:1).
  3. RED proxy files come in a REDCODE format, which is extremely frustrating. Not only does it not take titles or alpha channels or transitions, it also does not allow other formats – a ProRes file on a REDCODE timeline renders out as a gray frame. REDCODE can go into ProRes, but not the other way around.
The end result of these three things was this: I had to separate my timelines into three – one was for all the scenes shot on RED, another for all the scenes on the 7D (now ProRes) and the final for the combination. In order to watch the continuous movie, i had to render the mixed combination sequence into ProRes, which took precisely forever. If I made edits, i lost all or part of the render. Since 70% was RED footage, the render time became such an obstacle that I mostly just stuck to the separate timelines. I think I only watched the entire cut three, maybe four times during the entire 3 month edit (not counting the DVD based cut screenings or the quicktime screenings).

Re: Bots high – Things I learned about FCP and massive amounts of documentary footage

  1. FCP has a secret file size limit for large projects and becomes massively, confusingly unstable when this limit is reach or surpassed. If your project file approaches 100 mb, the system crashes near constantly. it also takes eons to open. We found that keeping project files under 75 mb was ideal.
  2. Our solution to the above was to create several projects, each one devoted to a different topic like “interviews” or “robot battles from the first act,” keep the media from that topic confined to the project and build the movie on a third project called “movie.” We then opened all of the necessary projects at once and kept them like tabs in the project window. It took weeks before we figured this system out.
3. Is there anything in particular that’s an influence when making the choice of editing platform?

Ubiquity and cost. Every editor and almost every filmmaker I know has a copy of FCP on their macbook pro. Most us got them while we were in school – early 2000s, when we could buy them for the student price, or bootleg them from the film school post hall. It was easy to learn and didn’t require any hardware or a dongle, which made it impossible to borrow or steal or “test drive.” Now that we’re all working and paid, my colleagues are upgrading, purchasing and making major post decisions based on what they worked with: FCP.

In my experience, this is what always happens with high-end software. I bought my first NLE system when I was 11 years old: I paid 5 bucks for a bootleg version of Adobe Premiere, which came to me on a set of 3.5 floppy discs. I learned to edit video on a computer using Iomega Buzz and a hi8 camcorder after tape to tape editing on the home VCR got too tedious. I learned photoshop the same way and at the same age. I eventually graduated to Final Cut because my high school bought me a copy I could use during an independent study film course.

In my opinion, the biggest obstacle to AVID entering the DIY market is AVID’s exclusivity and rather impressive security. It was too hard to get a bootleg copy when I was 12 and I couldn’t afford one on my 5 dollar weekly allowance, so I stuck with Premiere. I got my first taste of AVID at Film School, which was expensive and hard to get into. After graduating and moving back to Miami, I got my job at WLRN because I knew AVID and that was rare (especially in Miami). While I was working, they had such a problem hiring new AVID editors, that they began transitioning to Final Cut Pro so they could slowly phase out the AVID system.

The reason I don’t own and use AVID on my own projects or at Borscht? It’s too expensive to switch. My laptop, which I purchased with graduation money, is now too old to work with the newest AVID. A new macbook pro 15 inch will cost me $2,000. Now that I’m no longer a student, the software is $2,300. Do i think it’s a better, more stable system? Absolutely. Am i willing to pay $4,300 when the system I already have still works, even if it can be clumsy and unstable at times? Definitely not.

4. Are there trade mags or websites you keep up with for information on developments in film tech?

I’ve recently started reading NoFilmSchool.com and I love it. I get most of my information from there, or from IndieWire. My partner in Borscht, a filmmaker named Lucas Leyva, recently attended CES and came back with an eye on new tech, but for the most part I have geeky conversations with fellow filmmakers where we make JKL jokes and debate the merits of trim mode (I, for one, remain a fan).

One response to “Why I Love AVID But Won’t Make the Switch

  1. As an Avid editor I totally sympathise with all your points. I’m keeping my on Lightworks. http://www.lightworksbeta.com/
    I went to Lightworks straight from film and loved it but had to move to Avid because of faciilities. Be interesting to see what happens with this.

    Best of luck

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