Management Reviews

A.E.’s & The Checklist Manifesto (a mini-review)

I thoroughly enjoyed The Checklist Manifesto. Written by surgeon Atul Gawande, the checklist is presented as a tool, not only to prevent failure, but to increase performance. The book is filled with interesting examples of how checklists are applied in diverse fields like aviation and medicine; and the difference between DO-CONFIRM and READ-DO checklists. The book also chronicles Gawande’s own experience implementing a pre-surgery checklist for the World Health Organization.

While reading this book, I was experiencing a problem of my own at the office. Our Night Assistant Editor was exporting the show episodes to the network incorrectly. Exporting a cut to the network is a complicated process prone to error, made worse by the pressure to do it quickly. This seemed like the ideal process to apply a checklist to and so I created the Show Exporting Checklist. Any time an Assistant Editor is expected to export a cut to the network my Coordinator or I will printout the checklist and leave it with our Night A.E.. They are expected to fill out it and leave it on my desk for review the following morning.

The goal of my DO-CONFIRM style checklist is to help our A.E. remember of all the steps involved in an export, and to report back any anomalies to the team. I haven’t recorded hard data, but since implementation it feels like the number of errors has decreased significantly. And the information we gained from our Night A.E.’s observations has provided the producers and editors with valuable information about their episodes as well.

I highly recommend The Checklist Manifesto and thinking about the ways a humble checklist can improve your own work.

Management People

Is the A.E. career path broken?

In my enthusiasm for machine learning in post production (1, 2, 3) and my firm belief in the value proposition of automation; I may have given the impression that I don’t care about assistant editors, when nothing can be further from the truth. I got my start in ‘the business’ as an A.E.. I worked the night shift for years before advancing to Online Editor. Today, as a post supervisor, I care deeply for my A.E.’s and take great pride in seeing many of them develop into great editors.

But I believe the nature of the technology has changed the A.E.’s role and responsibilities so greatly that it no longer represents the apprenticeship path to editor like it used to. And I think 20th century rules make matters worse. And the field would do well to acknowledge the impending future.

Tapeless acquisition and Avid AMA (and previously FCP7’s reliance on file management and folder hierarchy) have transformed how Assistant Editor spend their time. On any given day an A.E. will spend the majority of their shift shuffling files from hard drives to servers, transcoding media, grouping footage, and preforming other technical skills. But at no point are they learning about the craft of editing. I’ve heard of A.E.’s working a 10 hour shift and then volunteering six additional hours just to cut a small scene. If they can even find someone to offer them mentorship.

In the meanwhile, being excellent at file organization and up-to-date on codecs has nothing to do with being good at pacing, timing, and manipulating images. However, the subordinate ‘assistant’ nature of the job means many struggle to make the jump when they’d be perfectly happy as an A.E. if it paid more and were treated with more respect.

The A.E.’s that want to make the jump to editor are further hindered by union rules that acknowledge only 2 positions: “Editor … a person whose primary skills include the actually cutting or selecting…” and “Assistant Editor … [who] at no time is he/she permitted to edit any portion of the sound or the picture … unless he/she is temporarily upgraded and works under the supervision of an Editor.” The mandatory rate gap between the two positions creates a disincentive for productions from bumping today’s A.E. to tomorrow’s Editor. The union membership would do well to find a way to create a junior editor position with a rate somewhere in between.

Many A.E. tasks can already be delegated to the software (media management if you use Avid Interplay & and Multi Grouping if you use Ultimately I believe the cost savings of machine learning will be too great for productions to ignore. And just as we don’t keep typists and negative cutters around, I believe the A.E. role will be greatly diminished in the near future too.

I’m not happy about it, but the writing is on the wall. We’d do best to address the issue head on.


The Assistant Editor Curriculum

My biggest gripe with most production companies is often their lack of interest in the development of the support staff, i.e., the Assistant Editors, Associate Producers, and Coordinators, who do much of the grunt work. I believe this is not a wise course of action because crew turnover plays havoc on team efficiency. People who know your show have an “institutional knowledge” that makes them faster, more accurate, and more productive. Therefore reducing the likelihood of turnover should be a high priority at any company.

Unfortunately, money, the primary tool I’ve seen utilized, rarely buys true loyalty. From my experience, the best way to retain your crew is to demonstrate a path of growth. Giving people the opportunity to grow keeps their attention on your project instead of imagining greener pastures somewhere else. And it creates value for the show as well.

A few years ago, in order to help facilitate my commitment to my crew, I created an A.E. curriculum. It was something I would share with my Loader to show them how they could become a Night A.E.. And my Night A.E. could reference it on their path to the Lead position. Consider the linked A.E. Curriculum a work in progress and something you can modify for your own team.

Someone once told me that being an Assistant Editor is a lot like being a Major League Baseball Outfielder. You can catch the ball 99 times, but the only time you get attention is when you drop the ball. It’s a thankless job. The least a Post Supervisor can do is demonstrate how their hard work will get them to where they want to go.

For more on this thought I highly recommend the Rands in Repose piece Bored People Quit. As today’s Timehop reminded me, his piece has been highly influential to me.