The Lot of the Stay-at-home Editor
As I write, I’ve just had my first day’s work outside my flat in about four months (thank you to the good people of I-Motus). It’s not that I’ve been idle during these months: I’ve just had an unusually long run of jobs where I’ve been cutting from home on my trusty iMac. I’d joined the ranks of the stay-at-home editors (emendator domesticus). This phenomenon is comparatively recent. It’s been theoretically possible for some time: we’ve been able to run Final Cut Pro from a consumer Mac for many years and Avid Media Composer (my preferred weapon) released an affordable ‘software only’ version in 2006. But what has made the real difference is the sudden dominance over the last two or three years of cameras that record straight to hard drive. No longer do editors need hefty tape decks and expensive interfaces to get the pictures in and out of their editing machines. If you have a system set up at home, you hardly need to lift yourself from your chair. The material comes to you on a drive, and the finished cut can be returned on the same drive or via an FTP site. If you like, you can even avoid meeting the producer and director – uploading cuts direct to Vimeo or similar sites, so they can watch them without leaving their homes. Filmmakers might never need to leave the house again.
But is this a good thing?
It depends who you are. Different factors apply for the editor and for the director or producer. As I’ve been on both sides of this situation — working from home as an editor and having editors work for me from home- I’ll approach each role separately.
The advantages for the editor are obvious. When working from home, my commute takes about 15 seconds, allowing for congestion on the stairs. I don’t have to factor in transport costs. Nor do I have to pay over the odds for a Soho sandwich. The coffee – oil of the cutting room – always comes when I want, and is of the prescribed strength. My kit is set up exactly how I like it; I don’t have to worry that another editor has come in and changed my settings, and I know any quirks the machine might have.
I am also master of my own time. This has always been truer for editors than for the on-set crew, but never more so than now. If I’m getting too close to the material I can go for a walk to clear my head. As long as I get the day’s rushes cut, or keep to whatever schedule has been agreed, I can work the hours that suit me. If I want to burn the midnight oil I can do so without fear of missing the last train home.
But it’s not all rosy. While working from home the lack of a journey in to work means that I get less exercise and have less exposure to sunlight. Then again, you shouldn’t be working as an editor if you want to get a tan. I have missed the sense of community you can get when working in cutting rooms like Goldcrest or De Lane Lea. The kitchens of such facilities houses are great places to make friends, find work, and catch up on industry gossip. You might even see Ken Loach wandering down the corridor (very polite fella – even holds doors open for you). You feel a part of things.
There are practical disadvantages to working from home too. Hired kit comes with technical support, so if the machine goes mental you can just pick up the phone, then put on the kettle and wait for the cavalry to arrive. If your own kit breaks down, the producer will be looking at you to get it fixed. Of course you can pay for a support contract for your kit at home, but those don’t come cheap. It helps if you’re reasonably tech savvy in the first place, so that you can fix minor problems without having to make a potentially expensive phone call.
There is a bit of trap in equipment ownership into which many camera people and sound recordists have already fallen. An affordable piece of professional kit comes onto the market; you think you can cash in by buying one and renting it to the production. This works well for a short time. However, once most of your competitors have had the same idea, the tables turn and kit ownership turns from a bonus into an expectation. Before long, producers stop paying extra money for kit hire. Kit-owning crew are back to square one, except now they have to maintain and upgrade their kit out of their own pockets, rather than having it hired for them. It’s not that anyone is being deliberately exploitative; it’s just an unfortunate inevitability of free-market economics.
The Producer and Director
As you will have gathered from the last paragraph, the domestic editor’s financial loss is the producer’s gain: editing becomes cheaper. Even if you are doing the decent thing and paying the editors for their kit, you’re still getting a better rate from them than you would from a facilities house, or even for hiring kit and putting it in the spare room of your office. The editor doesn’t have to pay business rates or employ hip receptionists to sit behind curvy brushed-steel desks. All the money you do pay for editing goes to the editor, which is no bad thing. True, the editor is less likely to be working somewhere that’s as central or convenient as you might like, but if you want to save money you might be prepared to go to see them in their deceptively spacious out-of-town cellar.
The other big benefit is that you get more work out of your editor. Studies* have shown that people who work from home tend to work longer hours from those working in offices. I’ve certainly found this to be true of myself as an editor. The fact that I’ve been trusted to work my own hours makes me feel obliged not to abuse that trust.
The disadvantages are few. The director has to do the commute that the editor has been spared. It’s also possible that your stay-at-home editor might not have a strangely coiffured runner named Bradley to bring you an expertly frothed cappuccino; and is less likely to have a large leather couch on which to drink it. But if, as a director, you can face this level of hardship, and the possibility of seeing your editor’s washing hanging up, the rest is plain sailing.
From the producer’s perspective, playouts can be an issue. Unless your stay-at-home editor has shelled out for the interface to connect their kit up to a professional standard deck, you’ll have to pay independently to make a tape for a screening, and be prepared for that process to be a bit fiddly. There are ways around this, but outputting material is the one thing that software-only systems never do as fast or as conveniently as a fully professional rig.
But is this way of working good for the film itself? Does it improve the editing process? Increasing broadband speeds herald the possibility of delivering rushes through the net: working from home will inevitably become more common, so the question is an important one. The answer depends on how much you let it affect the way the team works together. While I’ve had many visits from my directors over the last few months, I’ve also found myself putting up many more sequences online than is usually the case. While this can make approval and decision-making quicker and more convenient, it doesn’t necessarily make it better.
There’s no real substitute for sitting down in a room with a director, watching a cut through with them, so you can see where they laugh, where they lose attention, and discuss thereafter what you’ve just seen. You might even try out a few ideas there and then: will they work, or are they a blind alley? The very fact of spending time chatting with your creative collaborators not only makes the experience more enjoyable, it allows you better to anticipate their tastes. While you can bat emails back and forth, it’s much more likely that you’ll come up with an idea that neither of you would have come up with on your own if you’re actually sitting in a room together. These moments of shared genius are what makes the editing process strong; they give a film vitality and make it more than the sum of its parts. Sacrifice them at your peril.
* How do I know which studies? Just ‘studies’, okay!
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2012
To be sent my articles as they come out, hit ‘follow’ under the photo of my happy smiling face at the top of this page.