It has been a long time since I first witnessed the magic of non-linear editing. It was a hot and sunny Southern California winter day in the year 2000 at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Garry and I took the short walk from the soundstage over to the editing department. He asked me if I had ever seen a film editor at work. I was too embarrassed to tell him I had no idea who a film editor was, so I kept my answer short and simply said no. The man we were going to see was Bruce Green, Garry Marshall’s editor.
The film editing department was a small structure that stood in the shadow of the much larger Seven Dwarfs Building on the Disney studio lot. Oh, the irony! Even dwarfs towered over this little-appreciated art that in essence is the heart and soul of cinema!
We stepped into the humble bungalow-like building, reminiscent of a place right out of the 1930’s where Walt Disney himself may have worked half a century ago. Bruce sat in a small corner office hard at work editing Garry’s latest film, The Princess Diaries. I sat through the editing session looking at Julie Andrews and a then-unknown Anne Hathaway bounce back and forth between monitors as the scene came to life under my very eyes. It was magical! I was nineteen years old and it was the first time I understood how a movie was actually made.
The interaction between editor and director, so crucial in the filmmaking process, was effortless and poetic. Garry sat on a small yellowish couch behind Bruce’s workstation limiting his comments to nods of approval or notes that were straight to the point. He showed a great deal of trust in his editor and witnessing their work relationship was a true delight.
Later that day, Bruce’s assistant took me next door where I got to see the actual cutting and splicing of 35mm film. I can still remember the first time I inhaled the distinctive scent of celluloid. I had no idea what a rare sight that was going to be after the advent of digital cinema.
It wasn’t until 2003 that I was to start experimenting with editing myself. I had recently bought my very first camera, the Panasonic AG-DVX100, from a friend at a great discount. When it came time to look for an editing software I still remembered the name of the program they were using during that editing session, Avid! Back then, apart from the inaccessible Lightworks, Avid Media Composer was the only professional choice for aspiring filmmakers. Final Cut and Premiere Pro didn’t exist, or had yet to be taken seriously by industry professionals. A little research led me to the Avid website where all my dreams went up in smoke. I can’t remember the software’s price tag at the time, but it was higher than my rent. As a struggling actor, I had different priorities on my list, food being one of them. Just as I was about to give up on my aspirations, I stumbled upon a little-known product on Avid’s website, Avid Free DV. I was ecstatic, and pushed my dial-up connection to its limit during the hour and a half it took me to download it. The moment it was installed I got my camera out, took a few shots of the fish swimming around my fish tank, and after learning to import the mini-DV into my computer, got to editing.
This was before the days of YouTube video tutorials, and teaching myself wasn’t easy. After hours and hours of trying, it is hard to the describe how proud I was of my fish swimming around to Ennio Morricone’s theme from “Once Upon a Time in America”. Despite the “amazing” results, I had struggled so much to do so little, I came to the conclusion editing was not for me. Or so I thought.
Like all independent filmmakers operating on a low-budget, sooner or later you’ll find yourself having to learn every single aspect of the process. It wasn’t long before I was forced back into editing out of necessity.
A few months later, during the turbulent post-production of one of my very first short films, my editor went missing. When I recovered from the initial panic, I decided that the only way to never be put in that position again was to become an editor myself. It was time to get serious. Armed with a copy of Avid Xpress Pro and James Monohan’s instructional book, I locked myself in the apartment for a week and didn’t come out until I had a finished product. I went through moments of desperation and exhilaration, but every frame was exactly where I wanted it to be. I had finally harnessed the power of non-linear video editing and felt invincible!
Meanwhile, the world of independent film editing kept evolving and more and more of my acquaintances started working on platforms I had never heard of; Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, and even Vegas. By this time I had moved on to Media Composer so I looked down on everyone who was not an Avid man. Truth be told, I was at a great disadvantage compared to my peers. Media Composer was born as an integral part of the studio post-production workflow and was not suited to churn out two-minute YouTube videos by the hundreds. This made me an extremely slow editor and I often spent hours encoding, transcoding, and tweaking settings everyone else never bothered with.
By 2010 I had edited everything from live concerts to music videos, to documentaries, and from shorts to a feature-length film. Although I was grateful to Avid for allowing a mere mortal to edit like a studio editor, I detested the workflow and all the difficulties I had to overcome in order to make it work in the era of run-and-gun filmmaking. So by 2012, almost ten years after I edited my very first frame of digital video, I decided to hang-up my editor’s hat for good.
Almost a year went by before I got wind of a new “revolutionary” editing software that was going to blow everyone out of the water! And the best part of it all was that it was completely free! Lightworks had just released their free software and I was first in line to try it. I remember telling anyone who would listen that it was time to ditch the old ways for the new ones. I downloaded the software and was determined to become proficient at it. I gave Lightworks an honest try, but moving between editing platforms is excruciating. After a week of trying and interacting with other editors on various forums, I decided to give up. Sadly I also discovered that the free version of the software was mostly useless for serious work.
Over the next few years I took on a few more editing projects, but was never a happy camper. Editing was always a chore I did not look forward too… then something happened that would forever change my views on it.
In the spring of 2016, I was hired to be the cinematographer on an indie feature, the director had chosen to shoot the film on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Cameras. The first time I laid eyes on those little things I was skeptical. At my request, the director allowed me to spend a week experimenting with the camera, and what I saw coming out of this little workhorse was impressive. Working with the BMPCC was a breeze and if it wasn’t for the short battery life, I could find no fault with it. This was the first time Blackmagic Design got my attention.
I had heard of DaVinci Resolve before as a grading platform, so it came as a surprise to me when I found out Blackmagic Design was expanding it into an NLE application. Did I mention they were giving away a fully functional software for free? This time I didn’t jump up and down with joy, I had been hurt once before.
By the time I was hired for my next project I forgot all about it and reached out to an editor I had worked with before and his Final Cut Pro set-up. I had come to dislike editing so much I didn’t mind paying top dollar to hire someone to do the work for me. When he never got back to me, I dreaded the thought of having to reach out to people I had never worked with so I knew what awaited me at the end of filming, a miserable ten days of editing! Incidentally, this project was recorded on Blackmagic Design cameras as well so I felt like I had an obligation to give Resolve 12.5 the benefit of the doubt.
As of the time of this writing, I’ve spent a little over ten days editing, grading, and finishing the project on DaVinci Resolve and I am the happiest I have ever been sitting in front of an editing bay since that magical day 17 years ago when I first learned what non-linear editing was.
DaVinci Resolve has blown my mind at every turn. This free software is the best thing to happen to independent filmmaking since the introduction of the first 24p mini-DV camera. Everything in DaVinci Resolve 12.5 is intuitive and even though it has some room for improvements, I couldn’t have asked for a better application. When it comes to professional editing software (NLE applications), it is all about the editor’s personal preferences but I don’t believe there is anything out there quite like it, whether it be free or with a price tag in the thousands. But don’t take my word for it, give it a try!
The best part is that by putting professional filmmaking in the hands of anyone with a computer and an internet connection, Blackmagic Design is democratizing the process and contributing toward the advancement of the artform.