Want to Work in Hollywood? Avid is the NLE to Learn.
Before we get started, let’s all agree on some things. First, editing tools do not cut great stories all by themselves—editors do. Second, great editors can be found in a lot of places outside of Hollywood. Third, editors should never think they will only need to learn one tool to build a long, successful career.
With that out of the way, let’s also acknowledge that NLEs (like nearly all filmmaking tools) are not immune to market forces or trends in the industry. Consumer taste changes, tech advances, and organizations adapt. This has been true throughout all of film history, and it’s especially true in this era of endless software development and media consumption. Editors can (and should) use different tools at different times for different projects, especially as technological and creative demands change over time.
So, what do these trends look like for our industry’s favorite NLEs? Final Cut X’s unique layout and dependable performance make it a favorite among single users and small teams working on fast turn-around projects. Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, with its low (free) entrance fee, is becoming a favorite for individual filmmakers, while also tempting some larger teams with it’s all-in-one featureset and world-class grading power. And Premiere Pro’s interoperability with the vast tools of Adobe Creative Cloud make it a perfect fit for graphics-heavy workflows and multimedia team environments.
But what about Avid Media Composer, where does it fit? Is this tool from filmmaking’s past really relevant in 2019?
The answer is unequivocally “yes,” and depending on where you want your career to lead, it might be the NLE you need most.
Editing hasn’t always been a trade of keyboards and mice. Back in the old days, editors physically cut celluloid workprints by hand and arranged scenes by splicing the film together clip by clip. Of course, video workflows operated on tape for decades, and had to be scrubbed and edited with analog decks and reel machines.
But as technology advanced, these tools, and the workflows built on them, began to change. In 1987, Avid Technology Inc. was founded by William J. Warner. Warner had developed a system to copy video footage to digital hard drives in real time, without the need for analog tape. Two years later, the first iteration of Media Composer was released and computer-based non-linear editing as we know it emerged.
Within 6 years of its inception, Avid had partnered with multiple large tech and creative companies (like Apple and Lucasfilm Ltd), found a home in nearly 1,000 facilities, and had been used to cut multiple high-profile feature films. Pairing its fast non-linear editing abilities with fledgling disk-based camera technology, Avid’s systems also became a staple in newsrooms across America.
Over the next two decades, Avid developed various levels of its edit suites for professionals and novices alike. Yes, they did fight some financial difficulty as well as the rise of other NLEs like Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere. But through it all, Media Composer and its variants have been used to cut countless numbers of feature films, and Avid itself earned 2 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Tech Awards, a Grammy, and 16 Emmy awards. This feat is unmatched by any of its competitors, and firmly cements Avid’s legacy and importance in the industry.
To be sure, Avid’s market dominance isn’t what it used to be in the ’90s and early 2000s. But most would still agree that it prevails in Hollywood and big-budget US sports productions.
But with the proliferation of Adobe Creative Cloud, Final Cut X, and the blistering pace at which DaVinci Resolve is being developed, why is this still the case?
Some proponents of FCP X or Premiere Pro might cringe at the thought of jumping into Media Composer, while Avid editors can think of no other way to edit. So determining Avid’s relevance in 2019 isn’t black and white.
To better understand why it may be in an editor’s best interest to have an Avid skillset, I reached out to my former post-super, J.R. Hughto, now Netflix’s Manager of Creative Post for Global Marketing.
Building a career in high-profile post
J.R. got his start in the industry working at Runway (LA-based, globally-connected post-production solution company) as an engineer and workflow specialist. He’s supported Marvel Studios films like Thor and the popular AMC drama series Mad Men, among others.
“Runway focuses primarily on broadcast and film. I was the guy that figured out how we get from the back-end of the camera to post and then shepherd it through whatever deliverable it was.”
Once he earned both ACSR (Avid Certified Support Representative) and ACI (Avid Certified Instructor) credentials, J.R. began teaching non-linear editing, production, and post-production classes part-time and then full-time at Cal Arts and UCLA’s Tisch School of Theater, Film, and Television. Eventually, he landed at Trailer Park, the world’s leading entertainment agency.
That’s where we crossed paths while he was building the internal team that oversaw production and post for its original content division. In his time at Trailer Park, he guided massive projects like Universal’s Jurassic World, The Mummy, and Marvel Studios’ Daredevil Netflix series to delivery. Now he’s currently at Netflix, managing the internal creative post team that works on marketing for Netflix originals.
In short, J.R. knows his way around NLEs in the most professional sense possible – especially Avid Media Composer.
Flexibility Is What’s Relevant
Like most tools, each NLE has its strengths and weaknesses and an editor should use the best tool for the job they’re working on. Considering that, what’s J.R.’s advice for those starting to edit and trying to determine which platform to learn?
“It’s incredibly valuable to be the person that’s super flexible.”
This is simple advice, but it’s true. Focus on the part of the industry that interests you and build your skillset to match. It’s advantageous to learn the intricacies of multiple NLEs. Learning more systems doesn’t just open you up to more job opportunities, it can change the way you think as an editor, making you more efficient and creative.
In the end, you decide the path you want to take, so pick your tools to meet your goals. But keep in mind, if your goal is to edit mainstream feature films or TV shows, it is a necessity to learn Avid.
I’d argue that Avid is the best choice for those just dipping their toes into editing. While this might seem daunting at first glance, from personal experience of working with dozens of editors, I think that Avid teaches important editing fundamentals that can make learning other NLEs a lot easier.
For example, Media Composer’s toolset encourages you to cut with the keyboard rather than the mouse. This is faster than editing with a mouse, and is a great skill for all editors to practice no matter which NLE they use.
But new editors who start in Premiere Pro or FCP X have a tendency to lean heavily on the mouse, simply because the UI makes it so easy. However, that can make jumping into Avid more of a challenge, on top of making you slower in the timeline. So that’s why it can be a good idea to start with Avid’s keyboard-first interface. It will make you a faster editor to begin with, and then once you have the habit down, it’s easy to pick up the shortcuts in other NLEs.
Where do all the NLEs seem to fit
If you’re reading this, then you probably already know the NLE market is firmly divided, each camp with its own loyal followers, fanatical die-hards, and sometimes-reluctant users.
J.R. shares his personal experience, “from my perspective, obviously Final Cut X, Premiere Pro, and Avid are all used across professional workflows.”
He continues, “you’ll find that pockets like the San Francisco Bay Area are very much Final Cut X. But, in my experience, Final Cut Pro X is not used a lot in Los Angeles. It’s used more in ad agencies where it’s more appropriate for single users.
“But in most post houses that are servicing the film industry—meaning broadcast or film—you primarily find Premiere Pro and Media Composer. And it is still very typical for Avid systems to be dominant in that space where there are very large teams working on single projects.”
Critics will be quick to point out that Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve both have team solutions built into their editing platforms. Though the technologies are quickly developing, neither carry the robust nature and pedigree delivered by Media Composer—at least not yet. Avid built team collaboration into their platform a long time ago, so it has a very long head start. In J.R.’s experience, other NLEs don’t come close.
“When you have a project go sideways, it’s very hard to repair. Can you do it on other NLEs? Yes, you can. Is it as bullet-proof as the Avid system? No, it’s not. And even when it becomes so, it will take a lot of time to convince the studios and post houses that have been using Avid for years and years. But on a long enough timescale, though, if Adobe stays interested and makes a strong impression on Avid users, Premiere Pro could start to take some of Avid’s core market.”
All other bullet points aside, NLEs are all fighting to overcome Media Composer’s historic pedigree. Hollywood post professionals trust Avid and the tests it’s overcome that have earned it the high place in the NLE landscape that it has. In J.R.’s words, “It’s very hard to make the case that you’re going to try a new technology and chance the support issues that go along with that concept.”
What’s different about Avid?
So what is it that makes Avid so “bullet-proof”? The secret sauce is how it handles project files, giving editors and assistants unparalleled access to what’s under the hood.
J.R. explains, “The way that the system is built, all of its constituent parts (bins, folders, database files), are accessible from the Finder (Explorer window). For example, bins are represented as individual files.”
That led J.R. to what he believes is Avid’s biggest advantage. “There’s the ability to have Avid bin locking, not just project locking, so that everybody can be in the same project at the same time, sharing the same sequences, etc.”
What that allows for is assistant editors to build bins for editors and pass them along without anybody having to slow down or really even talk to each other! It also allows for conform and everything else to occur without editors having to stop cutting.”
Avid relies on a staunch media management style, that does its best to take the user out of the equation, relying on folder management and database files for handling content. Paired with robust logging features, Avid has proven its ability to handle projects of enormous size.
J.R. illustrates Media Composer’s asset management capabilities (and Avid users’ trust in the software) with the following statement. “If your final piece is only going to be thirty minutes long, or you only have 50-60 hours of material, any good NLE at this point can handle that. But currently, none of the other NLEs can point to a track record like Avid’s, where massive, hours-long BTS projects can be handled without a hitch.”
This aligns with my own experience while working with J.R. on Jurassic World’s original content. The behind the scenes footage alone neared 12 TB of DNx36 media. That’s over 700 hours of documentary style footage that a small army of editors and assistants wrestled with. We wouldn’t have been comfortable handling that with another NLE at the time.
Strength In Specialization
Premiere Pro is capable of adapting to a number of different roles; dits, graphics, mixing, illustration, and more. But generalists are not specialists. On major motion pictures, teams tend to be large and highly specialized. Editors cut, assistants manage media, graphic artists create visual effects, and colorists color.
“In Hollywood workflows, there is literally a person for every single task and rarely a need for a person, like an editor, to wear multiple hats.”
Because of this, the advantages of a suite of applications, like Adobe’s Creative Cloud, begin to disappear for an editor when their one job is to cut.
“The ability to have assistants and editors working simultaneously in a project leads to more uptime in editorial.” But J.R admits this need for simultaneous work is project dependent. “What an individual might want or need, like an indie filmmaker, is not the same kind of scale or scope as someone working on a major tentpole film. Having multiple editors working on the same thing is not needed for a lot of projects, and sometimes it might even be counterproductive.”
J.R. goes on, “If your goal is to have as many people supporting editorial as possible, in my opinion, Avid’s team and network-focused feature set still give it the edge over other NLEs. If your goal is tight integration with animation and you want to do some color work or address camera original files from the latest digital cameras, then that’s not Avid.”
In J.R.’s words, “every editor brings something different to the table. Some editor’s superpower is their ability to integrate graphics into pieces.” Of course, Premiere Pro, with its Creative Cloud integration with apps like Photoshop and After Effects, is a mainstay among editors who fluidly move between motion design and cutting.
Adobe has come to the fore as a powerful Swiss Army knife; however, if you don’t need all the other tools, and you just need a knife, Avid’s focus on cutting and teamwork are what contribute to its continued preeminence in Hollywood.
Gazing into the future
I asked J.R. if he thinks that Avid’s dominance for high-end workflows was here to stay. Given the proliferation of content being developed by experienced editors and YouTube-trained creatives alike, it could be argued that Media Composer’s hard focus on cutting and collaboration could become a liability in the future.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that an 18-year old freshman in film school is going to be interested in Avid, because the nature of the industry is changing so much. Most of us now have to do a lot of different things that we didn’t used to do, like an editor preparing content for social media. We’re making hybrids and that’s the future of the industry.”
And this is an opinion held by many industry experts and insiders. The demands of the creative industry are rapidly changing, and that is pushing the NLE market in new directions.
That said, J.R. is adamant that Hollywood is a bit different (as the real-world evidence suggests). “There will continue to be lag from the top down. Multi-hundred-million dollar superhero movies aren’t going anywhere, and those workflows require specialists. As long as specialist editors are needed, then specialist editing tools will be relevant.”
But yes, “hybrid” editors are on the rise, and the opportunities for this skillset are increasing at a neck-breaking pace. Almost every day it seems that new films are being edited on programs like FCP X, Premiere Pro, and even DaVinci Resolve. That means you can have a rewarding, successful, and acclaimed career in video post-production with these tools.
In the end though, if your ultimate goal is to work in mainstream (i.e. Hollywood) film or television, it’s still in your best interest to learn the current tool of choice, Avid Media Composer.
Of course, if you really and truly want to work in Hollywood, there are many, many more important considerations than which NLE you invest the most time to learn. Remember, there are lots of other markets where you can land a great job. As long as you continue to learn new skills and refine your creative instincts, your preferred NLE shouldn’t hold you back.
Unless it’s Windows Movie Maker.