design theory vs. editing theory


Tended to:

where these differing fields could learn from each other
where these differing fields could learn from each other

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webmaster's note:
This was originally written for a presentation at "DVA Design University," an internal lecture series at Adobe Design on the video apps team to share our passions and further education in media literacy relavent to designing digital filmmaking products.

Design Thinking & Editing Thinking

Design Thinking

We all know that the type of the “product design” all of us work in is a relatively new concept — it’s not uncommon to say real “Design Thinking” came about around 2007 with the introduction of the iPhone.

In June 2008 Tim Brown of IDEO published his seminal article about Design Thinking in the Harvard Business Review. In it, he writes:

But Design Thinking changed that. Now, designers as seen “user whisperers”, people who work in the Bermuda triangle between business constraints, user needs, and engineering capabilities to discover and develop the best possible solution.

Editing Thinking

Similarly though, Editors in filmmaking have traditionally strictly been considered a part of the downstream step in the film development process. People who have had no earlier participation in pre-production or production but come around and put a beautiful wrapper around everything.

From Schools-of-Thinking to PROCESSES

In the book Cutting Rhythms by Karen Pearlman, she argues that expert practitioners in any field consciously or subconsciously develop special kinds of terminology and processes. This is exactly what leads to terms like:

  • Design Thinking: Thinking like a designer in approaching problem solving
  • Studio Thinking: Habits of mind taught through studio art exercises

Karen Pearlman argues that Editing Thinking belongs in this category: “I propose that editing thinking is another such kind of thinking, and that not only is it developed by gaining expertise in the craft of editing, but it can be developed by people other than film editors who wish to enjoy its benefits and uses. Editing thinking is what editors do, but it can also be a capacity developed by other people. Further, editors who have editing thinking skills can transfer these skills into other fields of practice.”

(isn’t this exactly what we’re trying to do for when we argue for “design-led” thinking among our non-designer peers?)

So we could say:

  • Design Thinking: The process of discovering, defining, and solving problems from a Designer’s perspective.
  • Editing Thinking: The process of sensing, hypothesizing, and realizing structure and rhythm among a mass of material.

Both of these schools of thinking have their own developed terminologies and processes, but there are a few that overlap.

Iterative and cyclical processes

Both film and design rely on cycles of iteration to achieve the best possible product.

I won’t preach to you too much about the virtues of rapid prototyping in Design, we’re all familiar, but film can see similar benefits.

Walt Disney’s Leica Reels (Iterative Processes)

When Walt Disney created his animation studio in 1923, animators were primarily using “Straight Ahead” animation — drawing every frame in full from start to finish.

Walt saw this as a detriment in their ability to assess their work and outfitted every animation room with a Leica camera, cheap 35mm negative, and a Moviola — which is an upright machine for viewing rolls of film.

As the studio refined this technique, it became foundational as soon as a story was approved and dialog recorded for animators to begin matching the storyboards up to temp audio, and previewing it in the Moviola. They called these preview films “Leica Rolls” and would iterate on the Leica Rolls by showing them to Walt on the Moviola in what was called “Sweatbox Sessions:

When sequences began to get Walt’s approval, they would switch out those storyboard frames in the sequence with the keyframes, and then all the rough sketches, and then the character paintings, and then the character paintings with the backgound layouts, and then the special effects.

In each of these “sweatbox sessions” Walt would approve the progress and the vision of the film bit by bit until the Leica reel was essentially the final film ready for finishing.

In this way, they were testing and iterating on the individual sequences of the film over time, to make sure that they met the vision, but also that they just worked on screen and in motion in an unfamiliar medium.

“Leica Reels” became what is known today in Animation as “Animatics” and are essential to animated films. They are the source of truth for every artist and stakeholder that works on an animated project, especially a long-form animated project.

Design’s Imfamous Double Diamond (Cyclical Processes)

Both Design and Film are also Cyclical Processes.

I’m sure we’ve all heard dozens of different ways to try to visualize the Design Process, especially as we try to define what that looks like in our organization.

My favorite, is IDEO’s Double-Diamond Process, that Chris Referred me to. Designer Dan Nessler argues that the Double-Diamond Process is a loose framework that could be applied to any creative process.

In this Design Process, there are two areas of focus, and four steps within those two areas.

Area one is called Designing the right thing. It involves the Divergent thinking step of discovery, and the convergent thinking step of defining the problem and scope.

That cycle repeats. The second area, designing things right, involves the divergent thinking step developing the solution, and the convergent thinking step of implementing the solution.

Not long after finding that, it became apparent that these cycles of divergent and convergent thinking exist within the film process as well. Take a look at this quote by filmmaker Robert Bresson:

My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper, is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.

Taking it step by step…

  • My movie is born first in my head… The idea converges during the concepting.
  • Dies on paper… The idea converges into the production documents (the sources of truth)
  • Is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use… The idea converges when you hand it off to an army of contractors to produce over days, weeks, or months.
  • Which are killed on film, but placed in a certain order… Editing and post-production takes the mass of material and shapes it into the final film.

But the crucial difference at the moment is that while design was able to break into the entire process, editing still remains here at the end of the filmmaking process, even though editors are experts of story, rhythm, visuals, and emotion.

Collaborative Efforts

Finally, we know both Film and Design are intensely collaborative efforts.

There is the story of the lone filmmaker and the lone designer, but I think we can all agree that these are in large part collaborative mediums and the best products and the best films are the result of team efforts.

Designer collaboration seems to just be taking off on a new level with digital collaboration tools that get our work in front of others, instead of hidden in a sketchbook. Film might have taken the opposite approach. Cutting rooms were once heavily staffed, noisy, messy, energetic — as digital filmmaking replaced the roles of more and more people on the editing team, editing became a pretty solitary activity.

Even the title “Post-Production” very clearly states the role these people should play — after production.

The Promises of Digital Filmmaking

Walter Murch wrote a bonus chapter in the 2001 edition of In the Blink of an Eye, talking about the imminent transition from analog to digital filmmaking.

He speaks both about the challenges of the transition and the promises of the transition. The challenges primarily involve hardware capabilities to keep up with rendering needs, usability, reliability of digital media, etc.

The main promises revolved around a new era of filmmaking which is leaner, more agile, more experimental, and more open to the masses. Even though this has happened, it seems to have happened following the traditional linear production model where you build everything up over time bit by bit — the straight-ahead animation of film production — instead of constantly iterating to ensure the script works onscreen. As such, the roles of those involved in films has remained siloed.

Production tools, not post-production tools

A large part of the transformation in design were software tools that both legitimized the new role of the designer, and gave new capabilities to teams looking for this more holistic approach to design.

What if our video editor apps had workflow patterns that allowed rapid iteration from basic concept to final assets, and better facilitated collaboration with stakeholders and handoff to production teams?

After all, as Karen Pearlman says: “The editor is the creative collaborator with an expert knowledge of movement of story, emotion, image, and sound…”

In other words, what if we stopped looking at our apps as Post-Production tools, and see them as just Production Tools?

“The Onscreen Draft” and Clip Versioning

Karen Pearlman saw the advantage of this. She talks in the last chapter of Cutting Rhythms, also a response to digital filmmaking, about how we can use digital film tools to bring editors into the entire film process and continually test our ideas visually on the screen.

In the linear film production model, you spend months or years working on an idea and getting it through pre-production, then hand it off to a huge army of contractors and the idea diverges in a million directions, and then finally the mass of material is delivered to the editor who often has to “find the edit” or even “save the edit” sometimes.

But this is hazardous to work under because you’re mostly relying on paper documentation over the course of a huge investment to try to validate whether 90 minutes of onscreen visual content will work.

Karen writes: “When we understand how and why the editor writes the last draft of the script and add this to the fact that digital filmmaking tools could introduce new processes of filmmaking, we have to ask: why not create an onscreen draft? Why not bring editing thinking into the creative process much earlier and see how that might benefit story, emotion, image, and sound?”

There are 7 rules to an onscreen draft:

  1. An “onscreen draft” is a no-budget digital rendering of a whole story or screenplay that gets created somewhere in between the first and final drafts of the script.
  2. It does not replace a script; it is part of the script development process.
  3. It includes digital shooting and cutting, though the cut may also incorporate some found footage, just as it will incorporate things like temp sound and music.
  4. An onscreen draft is ugly. This is important. If it is going to be part of script development it cannot be polished in its production values.
  5. It is testing things like thematic coherence, information clarity or redundancy, dramatic questions and whether they sustain interest, plots, and whether they complicate or just repeat, as well as character’s motivations, relationships, and emotional dynamics.
  6. It can test shots, frames, staging, texture, and color but only if it is testing these in relation to the script, in order to reveal something about the script for a re-writing process.
  7. An onscreen draft must be cut together. An onscreen draft is testing the relationship of the scripted actions to the real ones. The question is: will this script make an onscreen experience of image, sound, movement, and time that tells a story with strong structure and engaging rhythm? In other words, will this script work onscreen? This question can only be answered by cutting image, sound, and movement together.

What if, to support a workflow like this, we looked at the way the Walt Disney switched out his sequences in Leica Reels as an early take on Clip Versioning and replicated the ability to do that?

Crafting the Edit vs. Finding the Edit

But of course, this is all assuming the filmmaker’s goal is to craft the vision in their mind from the beginning, and needs the editor’s assistance in doing do. There are many reasons why an editor might need to “find the edit” still, like in documentary projects, montages, and action scenes. In these cases, I think we can still be inspired by the past.

For instance, Walter Murch talks about one of the primary advantages and disadvantages of digital editing being “Random Access.” You can get to any clip you want, instantly. But your ability to find the clip is only as good as your ability to tag it correctly. With analog machines, you had to scrub through the film strips to find what you thought you wanted, and often became visually acquainted with the film along the way.

So while we already want to support smart metadata, there could be an opportunity to reinforce the role that hoverscrub plays in the app.

Maybe in a future version of Freeform View, you can treat it like a source monitor with Moviola-style hoverscrubbing. Double clicking on a clip will maximize it in the bin and you can hoverscrub with audio over this nice large frame.

There’s lots of other historical examples of how to improve our apps, like how Walter Murch prints out “representative frames” and pins them on a bulletin board while he edits. His tips could be perfect prescriptions for Freeform View improvements.

But that’s all I’ve got for you for now. Thank you for listening to me this morning.

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