Hollywood’s editing divide

Cutters in two tech camps -- Avid or Final Cut

The easiest way to start a fight at the Eddie Awards: Shout that you prefer to edit pictures with either Avid or Final Cut.

The feud is practically inbred in editors. The first reaction to a friendly pictorial history of Avid’s early days, posted on founder Bill Warner’s blog, prompted editor Sachin Agarwal to write, “Working on Final Cut Pro, we were taught to hate everything Avid.”

Anonymous ripostes on the American Cinema Editors’ site, directed to Avid Technology and Apple-owned Final Cut executives, include “Apple, get out of my editing room!,” “Final Cut does not have as good an interface, but has many features that are leaving Avid in the dust,” and “Final Cut Pro is the Easybake Oven of editing software.”

“Is there anything (Avid) DS does in real time?” asked a frustrated cutter on another site: “Yes,” came the answer. “It f***s you in real time.”

“I think it is a matter of taste,” said peacemaker Mary Jo Markey, who has edited movies (2009’s “Star Trek”) and television shows (“Lost,” “Alias”) on Avid. “There’s no need to malign another because of their taste. But that’s show business.”

Avid has always run on Apple computers, so Avid has never encountered the full zealotry of Apple evangelists. However, there was a time when PC partisans claimed it was more stable on Windows NT. Now the Apple platform undergirds up to 87% of both systems (see sidebar), and neither platform has an edge in stability.

Nonetheless the Avid and Final Cut camps like to yell at Apple from their sides of the trench, and both must employ a “save or die” strategy to avoid losing their work as they stare Apple’s infamous spinning Pinwheel of Death.

“Both (Avid and Final Cut) systems will, at some point, crash. There’s a 100% chance,” said Angus Wall, who used Final Cut to edit David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” “The Social Network” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” for which he shared an Oscar nomination with Kirk Baxter.

After years of offering multiple Avid suites at his post facility (Rock Paper Scissors in Santa Monica), he brought in Final Cut in 2005 when it “could do multi-clipping. Avid had that ability as an advantage — you could toggle within clips,” Wall recalled. “There was a lot of curiosity about Final Cut. Within six weeks, all of the editors here had switched over.”

That included Wall himself, who now likens editing on Avid to “driving a car in a theme-park ride, where the track determines where you are going. It’s great for that. It’s fast. But Final Cut is flexible. You can get in trouble but do things that are phenomenal at building digital work flows.”

That’s among the battle line editors draw: Final Cut flexibility vs. Avid solidity. Among the many ironies of the volleys back and forth is the similarity between the paths to acceptance of the two machines. Introduced in 1988, a decade before Final Cut arrived, Avid inspired much the same promotional praise and skeptical derogation later lavished on and lobbed at Final Cut. These days, few editors recall the artifact-ridden compressed images of early Avid. Wall remembered them as being so poor that in editing a C&C Music Factory video, a Steadicam operator moving through a shot wasn’t discovered until an embarrassing screening.

But now that both Avid and Final Cut can each claim their share of Oscars, Emmys and technical achievement awards, the two sides have settled into separate bunkers. “The camps are fairly distinct. Probably 90% of reality and scripted TV is done in Avid,” speculated Christopher Nelson (“Mad Men,” “Lost”).

An Avid editor since 1993, Nelson said that most Final Cut editors he knows have complained that Avid is too hard to learn. “I cut a pilot with two hours of training. It’s a non-issue,” said Nelson, who slips Avid on his laptop, allowing him to “eat with chopsticks on his lunch break at Chan Dara with one hand while editing with the other.” Also, he regards the price differential as a holdover myth. “You can get the student version of (Avid) Media Composer for $295 — with four years of upgrade.”

Jake Pushinsky was dropped into the deep end of Avid editing on “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” (2006) and kept swimming — until, for the movie “Howl,” he was asked to work on Final Cut, which the directors had already installed at their San Francisco offices. He contends that Final Cut “let’s you work with any format but makes you work to work with that format. In Avid, it is done once, converted upfront.” Little eccentricities — after deleting clips from a timeline, the render files remained — made him fear an incident in front of the producers. “On a basic level, (Final Cut) is the same thing,” Pushinsky said. “But in the end, I started to think it is not professional, that Avid is made out of metal and Final Cut is made out of plastic.”

“(Avid) is the Moviola of our era,” said Jay Cassidy (“Waiting for ‘Superman’ “), currently editing the Justin Bieber project “Never Say Never” on Avid. “It’s what everybody is using. It’s so robust, so industrial strength.” The Bieber show uses nine Avid systems and 20 Terabytes of media and incorporates special effects, “all looking at the same server. That can’t be done on Final Cut.” He said it doesn’t even sport Avid’s Script tool to create an electronic line script. “As a worthy competitor, Final Cut made Avid into a better company and forced them to make better software.”

Editors working in teams point to Avid’s Unity shared-storage advantage over Final Cut. “We have big crews, with three or four editors, a visual effects editor and one Unity,” said Markey. “In editing, we can even create temp versions of visual effects so we don’t have to have a ‘the Enterprise slides left to right’ slide.” But as committed as she is to Avid, she acknowledges some versions have been “more buggy than others” — and has, so far, avoided Final Cut.

Final Cut has made its share of converts. Eric Zumbrunnen cut Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” on Avid but, for the last five years (including Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are”), has worked exclusively on Final Cut. “Spike knows (I switched), but I don’t think he cares,” said Zumbrunnen, “as long as it allows him to see what he wants to see sooner.”

Zumbrunnen saw an edge in using Final Cut for the “Wild Things.” “We needed to carry many tracks of 24-bit audio to preserve the actors’ dialogue, preserve it in the rough cut and export the media without the sound designers having to re-conform everything.” Though Zumbrunnen cites the “lack of rigidity with Final Cut” as appealing, he reports that “the re-rendering of things can be frustrating.”

Editor Walter Murch figured prominently in the acceptance of both systems, winning the first Academy Award for a picture edited on Avid, “The English Patient” (1996), then dramatically elevating the status of Final Cut by using it on “Cold Mountain” (2003).

“Final Cut had been used on television, but not on an $80 million film,” Murch recalled. “There are still differences. I did have rough spots, eight or 10 years ago, with Avid. That’s why I lobbed this hand grenade.”

But Murch’s shifting allegiance wasn’t out of spite — despite a series of “deep, open-up-the-hood crashes” during the editing of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” in Rome. “(Avid) said it was an add-on problem. MGM had the work-around, but I resented that I had to get it from a colleague who was also suffering.”

While praising some Avid tricks (down to its Find Bin and Undo commands), he genuinely prefers some Final Cut features (such as 99-track, 24-output audio, the ability to see the entire film as a single sequence), while not sparing it the rod for instability and re-rendering time suck.

Murch sees the tension between camps as almost amusing. “It reminds me of arguments between my uncles and aunts about Ford vs. GM in the ’50s,” he says. “As time goes on, each system will come to resemble the other because they will poach the best from each other. And we, the drivers, will be the beneficiaries.”