I often find that a couple of weeks can go by at the beginning of an edit where I will see the director no more than once or twice. He or she is either still filming or booking a holiday or something. It's long been a fantasy of mine that I could work at home for this time, saving on travel and keeping more flexible hours, pitching up at a facility only once the director's ready to get involved. It would also save the production company money spent at facilities and, because facilities no longer make any money on offline, they'd be happy too - everybody wins!
Having used both Apple's Final Cut Pro and Avid's Xpress Pro (see over page for more detail), I know they both work. But is it worth my while owning one? Or would it effectively be an expensive toy?
I've been working on an episode of Betty TV's Spendaholicsfor BBC3, which we are editing on a Media Composer Adrenaline at Blue. As it happens, the programme is about a young chap who runs up£25,000 worth of debt buying electronic goods that will be obsolete in a year. I'd already cut one show in the series with director Nicky Key and knew that for the first fortnight she'd mostly be away from the edit. It was an ideal opportunity for me to try working from home.
Avid claims that all its editing systems, from Xpress DV through to Symphony, can seamlessly pass project files and supported media between them. This gave Xpress Pro (which can use the standard 15:1 off-line compression) the edge for this trial. I always take such claims with a large pinch of salt, but John Harris at reseller Root6 was encouraging: "It just works," he said and lent me a laptop running Xpress Pro so I could see for myself.
Having copied the rushes and my first few days' work from Blue's system onto the laptop, I took it home to Brixton and gingerly powered it up. Harris was right: it just worked. And when I took my new cut back to the Media Composer: that worked too. I did have problems using the laptop; not only is it fiddly, but it seems that the volume controls on Dell laptops also edit material into your sequence - a dreadful flaw for which Avid says there's no cure; but two weeks later I've had no problems moving files back and forth at all and have hardly noticed the difference between the two systems.
Unfortunately, I don't see how I can make it pay.
A fully configured Xpress Pro system including the£1,200 Mojo box that allows uncompressed video, analogue input and output and playout of non-DV resolutions will set you back about£7,000. A basic version without the Mojo comes in at about half that.
Apple's Final Cut Pro works out a few quid cheaper and has the advantage that you can start on a budget and later upgrade your hardware to a fully digital broadcast-standard online machine without changing software. But it's not Avid.
You've also got to get your footage into and out of the computer, and that means buying or hiring a VTR of some sort for another£1,800 or more.
With hire rates starting at about£300 a week, to recoup the cost of even a cheap system I'd need four months of solid work.
With the best will in the world, I think I'd get an absolute maximum of 10 to 12 weeks' use a year from a system that I could only work on without a director present. Not enough to pay for it before it becomes obsolete.
You can cut costs, but it's not for the faint-hearted. You could just buy the software to run on your home computer but you run the risk of conflicts with other programmes (when I installed Xpress Pro, the internet banking for my business account suddenly stopped working), and many editors, worried about security, keep their editing computer isolated from the internet.
Cheap storage? Root6's John Harris warns against this: "There are issues with cheaper drives," he says. "If a 500Gb drive fails on you then you've lost 125 hours of 15:1 footage." That's two or three weeks of digitising time.
Harris reckons more and more editing work is what he calls "non-client-attend", particularly offline, and that many freelance editors are buying their own kit to service this demand. But he would say that, wouldn't he? He's a salesman. I've yet to see it in broadcast television.
It is true, though, for sound editing on dramas. Dialogue editor Phil Barnes, who has worked on Shackletonand Dirty Filthy Love, runs Pro-Tools on an Apple G4 at his home near Milton Keynes. He collects the raw tracks from the sound facility on his iPod and when he's finished plugs it straight back into the dubbing theatre ready to mix. Compared to commuting it saves him 15 hours a week and thousands a year on train fares. But even hiring the system out to other people at£500 a week, he still reckons the system has taken two years to pay for itself - just in time to be due an upgrade. Brixton is only an£1.20 bus ride from Soho. The advantages for me seem pretty slim.
Several freelance editors I've talked to are worried that as the kit gets cheaper it will become expected that we provide it as a matter of course, perhaps cutting out facilities altogether - Barnes thinks that sound editors without kit are already at a commercial disadvantage.
Owning the kit also means a shift in the responsibility for technical problems onto the editor's shoulders. As Rupert Sewell ( Property Ladder, X-tra Factor) says: "With deadlines approaching I've got enough to worry about just editing the damn thing, let alone fixing technical problems as well."
At least for now, this notion of work-life freedom is just a fantasy for me. The technology works, but the economics don't. What's alarming is that it might ultimately saddle me with more stress for no financial gain. Common sense tells me these luddite fears are unfounded and producers will continue to see the value of fully serviced facilities. But then again...
Leo Carlyon is a freelance editor