Media Theory Reviews

2019 Existentially Reviewed

I originally wrote this in early January but decided to shelve it because this post felt too personal and off-topic for a blog (mostly) about post production. What a difference eleven weeks can make, right? I don’t have anything to say about the ongoing global pandemic, but something about this post feels of the moment and worth sharing now.

In 2019 my wife gave birth to our second child and I became a father again. Parenthood is amazing, and beautiful. But that’s not what this post is about, because being a parent is also an endeavor filled with an existential anxiety best expressed by a quote from Elizabeth Stone:

“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

It is through this lens of existential anxiety brought on by parenthood that I want to share with you my three favorite pieces of media from 2019: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, Inside Bill’s Brain by David Guggenheim, and Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang.

“Forget your hopes. They are what brought you here.”

— Clive James translating Dante

If you think you know what Wallace-Well’s book is about without having read it, you’re wrong! The Uninhabitable Earth is to climate change, as The Omnivore’s Dilemma was to food: a framework to think about its respective topic and a survey of the best thinking in the field.

Just as Michael Pollan set out to explore the complex multi-faceted ways in which we grow and consume food from fast-food to farm-to-table; David Wallace-Well examines all of the ways our climate is changing (rising sea-levels, reduced air quality, more extreme weather, etc) and more importantly, how we as a species are coping with it. His chapter on how Cognitive Biases prevent us from effectively grasping the problem is a worthwhile reason to read this book.

I don’t know how to come to terms with the fact that my children may very well live to see a world where humans abandon coastal cities like Miami and Venice. But neither do I know how to reconcile how much I love my kids with how much I dislike people. Humans aren’t good at much, but we are certainly good at holding opposing values as equally true.

“Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary.”

— Herman Melville, Moby Dick

David Guggenheim frames his wonderful portrait of the brilliant Bill Gates through the work he and his wife, Melinda, are accomplishing through their foundation. Let’s just get this out of the way: Guggenheim tries to paint Gates as complex, but his documentary series is really an indictment against the rest of us. Bill and Melinda Gates want to give us clean water and eradicate polio, and they are willing to spend Billions of dollars to do it, but people just can’t stop being people. We reject the vaccines and the cheap clean energy and good money continually gets thrown after bad.

Watching the Netflix documentary series made me feel two things: firstly, Bill Gates was born a genius and was given every opportunity to succeed. His success doesn’t feel like much of an achievement as it does an inevitability; it would have been reprehensible had his life turned out any other way.

Secondly, that most all of humanity has relinquished so much power to so few makes me feel sad for the future. We, the people, no longer believe that government can do something like eradicate polio through smart public policy, so instead we wait for billionaire overlords to hand out a disease free future when they feel like it. Because as much as Bill Gates wants to help humanity, he’d prefer not to pay more taxes.

“What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.”

— Seneca

The wisest of us know that if there is any comfort to be found in this world, it is to be found in art. Ted Chiang’s recently published collection of short stories Exhalation are transcendent. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom” are beautiful explorations of regret and the triumph over it.

But in my opinion, the best of Chiang’s short stories is, “The Great Silence,” about the parrots who live next to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and lamet humanity’s inability to see what’s right under their nose. It’s heartrendingly beautiful and is the perfect coda to a post about existential dread. If you only read one of my links, go to Electric Lit and read his story here.

Reviews Software

Learning Python

I’m finally teaching myself Python! I’ve wanted to re-learn computer programing almost since I stopped learning C in high school.

I’m using Ali Sweigart’s excellent book Automate the Boring Stuff with Python. I can’t recommend it enough!

There are two things that have made this the book for me. First, Automate starts at the beginning and building a solid foundation. For example: most of the other resources I’ve tried (and I’ve tried many in the past) don’t explain the difference between the Interactive Shell and the Launcher. Or how to even check that you’re running the most current version of Python in the Command Line. Maybe it’s so basic that most resources just assume that the reader will know how to do this. But this starting from the beginning approach has made the world of difference for me.

I also like the practical aspect of the book. It’s not working towards abstract computer theory, it’s building towards enabling you to use a computer as the most powerful tool mankind has even invented. In other words: how to stop wasting your time repeating unnecessary tasks.

I’ve supplemented my learning with two additional online resources: “The Hitchhikers Guide to Python” and “Think Python“. These two resources fill out and expand upon the knowledge I’m learning in Sweigart’s book.


Why the Roman Empire taught me about the importance of Diversity! (review)

I love learning about ancient history. So I am delighted to recommend Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete’s The Great Courses on audible: Rise of Rome and From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. But what truly surprised me about Dr. Aldrete’s thoughtful lecture series were what they taught me about the importance of diversity in today’s society.

It’s easy to think that we know so much about Roman History because so much of its history survives in the written form. From Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars, to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (a favorite of leaders from Churchill to Bill Clinton); it seems like every word Cicero uttered was written down, and even Rome’s poets like Ovid influence our ideas about art today.

Featured image by Mauricio Artieda on Unsplash.

But in reality our knowledge of the Roman Empire is limited to the extremely narrow focus of (1) Roman Citizens, who were (2) wealthy, (3) political active, and (4) men. A group that represented less than one half of one percent of the most diverse Empire of its time.

During his lectures, Dr. Aldrete brilliantly uses the few sources we have – tomb stones, graffiti preserved at Pompeii, letters from a Legionary found in Egypt – to try and tell us the stories of the rest of Rome’s citizenry. And through his grasping we feel the true tragedy of that lost knowledge.

Marble portrait bust of the emperor Gaius, known as Caligula, A.D. 37–41 Roman, Early Imperial, Julio-Claudian Marble; H. 20 in. (50.8 cm) length 7 1/16 in. (18 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1914 (14.37)

It is easy to be cynical about Vice Presidents for Inclusion and Diversity Initiatives. And we are right to be cynical! (I’ll let a much smarter man, David Foster Wallace, explain) But it’s a start; and if humanity makes it to the year 3,000, or 4,000, or beyond, it would be a real tragedy to deny future generations humanity’s collective perspectives. I’d even argue that the only way we’re going to make it there is by including everyone’s diverse points-of-view.

Product Reviews

Opening Salvo (Updated)

Bravo Avid! You really made a bold statement on Saturday, announcing the next version of #Mediacomposer featuring a major UI overhaul just two days before Blackmagic Design will unveil Resolve 16. The last time the “NLE Wars” ran so hot Apple had the largest booth at NAB.

The infrastructure changes to Nexis are also big, (I mean, cloudspaces!!!) but beyond the scope of this particular post. Right now we are going to focus on why the UI overhaul is so revolutionary.

A curmudgeon’s meme.

Avid Editors will swap tales about which version of Media Composer was the most stable. ˆMeridien vs. Post-Meridien; the fabled 4.6.2 that never crashed … with SD; and 8.9.4 was pretty good until 2018. when Avid tried to be all like Adobe.

Part of Media Composer’s speed and stability is the enduring nature of it’s interface. Avid has changed MC multiple times in the past: Think AMA, and the dynamic timeline. But since the interface remains consistent an Editor’s valuable muscle memory doesn’t need to be retrained. An experience Editor and MC is a form of an existing BMI between man and machine.

Changing the interface could effect muscle memory, which in the Avid world could cause riots. Therefore every change needs to carefully weigh the costs and benefits. So this is a big gamble for Avid.

The advantage of taking this risk is that Avid is looking to tackle the widespread problem of non-editor usability. Avid isn’t Discoverable and it’s interface is very dated in the age of the single screen workstations (iMac, laptop, story producer screening station), iOS-era interactions, and the continued drift away from Log and Capture metaphors. Avid is gambling that making custom interfaces depending on “role” and with tailored toolsets is the way to go. Agitating a few to the benefit of the many.

From the website MC will support Resolve-style roles: Edit, Color, Finish, etc. But Avid is also introducing roles like Producer, Assistant, Logger. These interfaces will put the tools these roles needs front and center while hiding the more esoteric buttons. This would enable larger teams to collaborate more efficiently and within the Avid (Microsoft) eco-system.

Last year you would have barely realize that Media Composer as a product of Avid Technologies. I bet that’s going to very different this.

There is is. Media Composer does Premiere meets Resolve

Update: Just had a hands on demo with 2019.5 and the new interface is a big deal. I think Bin management is going to require a rethink of an AE’s/Editor’s habits. The demo is running on a MacBook Pro, Avid is definitely trying to show off interface efficiency.

Update: Media Composer is just a small slice of Avid’s booth.
Reviews Software

DaVinci Resolve (an awkward review part 1) DRAFT

Note: Blackmagic Design was kind enough to send me a copy of their training book “The Definitive Guide to DaVinci Resolve 14“ back in February. Although Resolve 15 was released in April, none of the information below is affected by differences between versions 14 and 15.

In addition, since I’ve clearly been working on this review for a looong time, I thought I’d share with you, my loyal readers, the current draft of my review, as well as my notes here.

There is SO much good and free information (here is just 1 example) about Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, that it is difficult to think of ways to contribute to the conversation. However, here is my attempt to cover some of the philosophical questions introduced by such a comprehensive software program. My point of view is as a producer and a teacher, and less as a day-to-day user; so let’s see where this goes!

Age of the NLE virtuoso?

The most interesting question posed by DaVinci Resolve is: who is this software for? By incorporating NLE editing, Audio Mixing, industry leading Color Correction, and node-based Compositing; you’d logically think that Resolve’s ideal user is the one man band. However, unlike a plugin such as Colorista or Adobe incorporating Machine Learning to automatically match shots in Premiere, Resolve does nothing to hide the inherent complexity of each discipline.

Resolve Color
Mastering this one interface could take an entire career.

People often ask me which program they should use if they want to edit digital content for the web, and without hesitation I almost always say, “Adobe Premiere”. Let’s not mince words here. I understand that the question could be interpreted with nuance and subtlety. But the question doesn’t warrant the effort.

Media Composer is built around the heritage offline/online workflow model. Avid can bolt-on and bulk-up AMA all they want, but MC wants to manage your media for you. The interface is practically begging you to let it.

When your digital content is a few dozen clips hastily copied off of a camera card onto the desktop; the ability to drag a file from the Finder into a Timeline is undeniably superior.  Not from a media management point-of-view, but from a just creating an edited video to share with the world is huge accomplishment point of view.

If you have to ask “which program I should use,” then you’re using Premiere. The people and projects inclined to use Avid Media Composer already know that they’re sending their audio to be mixed in ProTools etc.

Which leads us to this: The Resolve interface is so sweet I want to lick it!

Resolve interface details
Look at those track selectors! And the beautiful rounded corners of those clips!
Resolve trim details
Trimming so smooth it could double as a slip-and-slide.

I know that it sounds like I’m conflating interface and task complexity, and I kinda am. But as I’ve observed before, I think there is a relationship between the complexity of an task and the complexity of a program’s interface to achieve it. Clearly Blackmagic’s designers have been working on overdrive, but who can truly master DaVinci anymore? As a producer should I feel dubious of an Resolve 15 expert? Who is the virtuoso who’s mastered Editing, Compositing, Color Correction, and Audio Mixing; and interfacing with software at its most sophisticated level?

The Definitive Guide to Visual Literacy?

I think Blackmagic’s guide to Resolve 14 is very well written. There is so much to like here. Paul Saccone’s writing style embodies the best of Strunk & White’s rule about clarity. Complex concepts like trimming and handles are explained (and illustrated) in a straightforward way that make it easy for a novice editor to understand.


Saccone’s writing is so clear that when you stumble upon something obtuse, you realize the inherent complexity of nonlinear editing. A good example of this are the JKL scrubbing instructions on pages 56 – 59. You can only learn so much about surfing from books; eventually you have to get out there and get thrashed by the waves.

Although written with pristine clarity, here again we have to consider this question of: who is this software for?

Saccone will remind the reader that: “It is also important to understand that the clips are not copied, moved, or transcoded when you import them. DaVinci Resolve is completely non-destructive; it simple links to the unaltered files in their current locations on your hard drive.”

Or: “Don’t worry, changing the Display Name does not change the filename on your hard disk.”

And yet he never explicitly explains the difference between media files and the representation of them in the NLE. Something you’d assume would need to be taught to someone who doesn’t understand the non-consequences of changing a clip name.

The Left-brain Right-brain Problem

Perhaps my favorite insight so far has been Saccone’s description of the effect of the auto select button: “Keeping audio and video in sync is always a concern (and chore) for editors.” I know that the terms left-brain and right-brain are incorrect, but editing is a unique blend of the technical and creative, and here we have a perfectly succinct description of an editor’s cognitive load.

Editors can be a curmudgeonly lot of people when it comes to their tools. Who can blame them? On one hand you have the computer, a rigidly logical device with a very low bandwidth interface. On the other hand, you have the task of creatively juxtaposing motion pictures in a mentally taxing work environment. Then, much like a chef that can only make a meal as good as his ingredients, editors can only work with footage given to them from “the field”.

It is no wonder an editor will clutch their favorite (or only) NLE so tightly. Their hard won muscle memory reduces the cognitive load of interfacing with the software. A skilled editor can be equally creative in Media Composer, Premiere, Resolve, or Lightworks; but they won’t be as effective stumbling over unfamiliar keystrokes.

If only xkcd would consider the NLE.

To be continued…