As Technology Matures, Digital Revolution Turns Into Editorial Evolution

New workflows blur lines between the editorial and other departments

Bob Odenkirk Better Call Saul
Courtesy of AMC

Digital technology upended film editors’ workflow about 20 years ago, relieving them of a time-consuming, physical process.

As digital capture and editing evolved side by side, they cleared the path for other functions such as visual effects and sound design to occur at any point in the production process. And now that all those digital tools have blurred the boundaries between departments, one wonders what further changes will grip the editorial process.

Editor Bob Eisenhardt, nominated for an American Cinema Editors Eddie award for “Everything Is Copy” in the documentary (television) category, sees incremental changes. He doesn’t miss working with film because it’s now easier to organize projects.

“The two trends I see are it becoming more portable and better quality,” says Eisenhardt. “I can’t imagine seeing another paradigm shift like the previous one but I think there will be more tools, more tricks and the ability to do things within a frame, much like we use PhotoShop.”

Skip MacDonald, nominated for “Better Call Saul” in the one-hour series (commercial) category, works with a team that tackles the footage as it arrives. In the rapid-fire workflow of TV, deadlines are so tight no one has time to see how the other team might be working through its episode, but nonetheless digital tools allow editors to work at an intense pace.

“I don’t expect there will be another change like the last one, but I wouldn’t say the technology has settled down,” says MacDonald. “We’re still seeing small changes, but mostly in TV because of the production schedule.”

Tom Cross, nommed for “La La Land” in the feature film (comedy) category, also witnessed the last big shift and — if anything — it reaffirmed his ideas about classic storytelling. “There’s always a bit of reinventing the wheel on every project because the technology makes incremental changes all the time,” he says. “But what’s funny is that we try to step forward, but we always have one foot in classic storytelling; that’s what’s satisfying to watch.”

Though the workflow makeover revolutionized how editors do their jobs, it hasn’t been exactly smooth. Some issues still remain unresolved.

“Storing and moving files is still a very dangerous process,” says Carol Littleton, nommed in the miniseries or motion picture (non-theatrical) category for the LBJ story “All the Way.” “If you aren’t careful or don’t spend a lot of time and money on that process you can lose everything.”

Littleton, who witnessed big changes in the 1990s, says many colleagues who were in their 60s or older at the time simply left editing because learning a new process was too daunting.

Joe Walker, nommed for “Arrival” in the feature film (dramatic) category, has changed and evolved the shape of his editing team in the past four years. While working on the sizable sci-fi project, it made sense to bring in vfx and graphics people to do smaller bits of that work in-house while continuing to outsource the heavier vfx shots.

For example, Walker also worked closely with vfx editor Javier Marcheselli, who was originally Walker’s assistant editor, to solve aesthetic issues in-house — something that wouldn’t be possible without the current technology.

“Something we did on ‘Arrival’ and now on ‘Blade Runner’ is to have some comp artists on board to finish some of these simpler shots in-house,” says Walker. “On ‘Arrival’ we also had a small team of graphics artists to do all the screens with the news stories flashing about the alien invasion.”

Marcheselli says the tools editors use are moving toward more touch-screen capability and blended workflow, with different departments collaborating in-house and on the fly as a project evolves and changes.

“The goal is to keep ideas flowing,” says Marcheselli. “When we use the software this way, then that’s what happens and you can really follow inspiration.”

(Pictured above: Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul”)