REVIEW: Off The Tracks: A film by Bradley Olsen

Review by Jonathan Dowler

Check out the Trailer here:

https://youtu.be/8aNW2_NiIes

 

[Full disclosure – I have 2 friends in the documentary who are avid (pun intended) Final Cut Pro fans and almost every name is someone from whom I’ve bought a plugin from. This was a roll call of famous trainers, filmmakers, developers and fans.   I would die to sit down with any one of them, and to have them just sitting down and having a chat is great. (Side note: my buddy Ché Baker made a movie and cut it on Final Cut X and it’s great.  Iain Anderson does fantastic tutorials on many things Apple and if you want to learn FCP X definitely look him up at funwithstuff.com. I heard this movie was in production and crowd funding and considered donating, despite harbouring some lingering anti-final cut feelings]

 

I really,really liked Bradley Olsen’s Off The Tracks.  It’s rare to find any documentary on the craft I’ve taken up as a profession, let alone one dealing with the history of one of its most popular tools.   I bought it Friday off of iTunes and passed a light and breezy 90 minutes watching it. Brilliantly cut, nicely paced - it’s clever, creative and engaging. It’s worth a watch.  It’s available on the iTunes Canada store now.

 

I’m a sucker for a great documentary. Tell me a story well and make me care and I am with you. But far from just a A-B account of a bit of software and its development, this is a movie about the craft of editing, and how we as a species tell stories. But to get to that point you have to move past some old wounds that any editor who found themselves caught between Avid/Adobe and Final Cut Pro and the argument that started back in April 2011.

 

The movie kicks off when Apple rolled out the new Final Cut Pro version (known as Final Cut X, or Final Cut 10 ) at the Las Vegas Supermeet in April, 2011.   With a “House of Cards”-esque score and using ‘historical’ footage taken with iphones, the roll out event is recreated and retold by people who were in the room. The moment when Final Cut’s Chief Architect Randy Ubillos announces that Apple had “revolutionized editing” and unveiled Final Cut X takes on the historical significance of the Ford Motorcar rollout.  In fact, the movie even makes that comparison later on (but let’s not jump ahead).

 

To a half-gleeful, half-shocked crowd of professionals, Ubillos demonstrated their ground-up rethink with Apple’s familiar confidence and bravado declaring this app would revolutionize editing.  After years of making leaps and bounds and challenging Avid Media Composer’s domination of the ‘pro’ post-production market with their Final Cut Pro Studio of applications (Final Cut Pro, Soundtrack, Motion, Cinema Tools), Apple decided to rethink the whole application.  Gone were familiar features such as tracks, bins, canvases and preview windows.   Making their debut were the seemingly abstract concepts they had built the new application around:  smart searches, keywords and a magnetic timeline.  This was typical Apple: supremely confident in their design, they had decided to rethink the wheel, and they were excited to bring everyone along. With a new price tag of $299, they were confident they had a new product that was going to be greeted with the same wild, Apple fan-boy enthusiasm as the first iPhone.

 

It was not.

 

For any editors who had got their start at the turn of the century, I would be surprised if they didn’t remember 2011 and Final Cut X’s roll out. I remember many long talks around the coffee machine and run-on conversations with my colleagues, assistants and friends about this new program and what it meant for me.  Some barely noticed, some were thinking of ditching their entire home suites, and others just shook their heads.

 

I won’t spoil the rest of the movie – I really do recommend you spend the 10 bucks and watch it.  From this moment that we’re hit with the announcement, the rest of the movie deals with whether the call to do a ‘hard cut’ when they maybe should have done a ‘dissolve’ was the right one for Apple to make. (I don’t think there is much debate on that – if they had come out with the app they have now back then?   This whole argument would NEVER have happened)

 

So – see the movie – If that’s all you need to know – skip to the end: this next part is about me. Me and my up and down relationship with a bit of software that taught me so much, broke my heart, and with whom I’m only now starting to make up with.

 

1999.

As I was starting out my career, the titan I remember desperately wanting to learn was AVID Media Composer. At university I had shot a feature on MiniDV (and who didn’t in the late nineties?*) and in that un-ending drive that the truly passionate and truly broke have – I taught myself editing on that project by  cutting it on every computer I had access to.  I exported that media in and out of Final Cut 1.0, Adobe Premiere Pro, and Media 100.

 

But in terms of ‘pro’ editing, I knew AVID was the “real” editing program I needed to learn - simply because whenever I went out for every job I was asked if I knew Avid.   When my answer was “no, but I know Final Cut/Premiere/Media 100” I was met with a nod followed by a scribbled note on the interviewer’s notepad.    I don’t know who decided Avid was considered Pro and the others weren’t. Maybe the cost for a system at the time was so expensive that to have had access to it long enough to learn it meant you had to be serious about editing. After all, it was only affordable to cutting edge production houses or perhaps a freelancer who had made the gargantuan investment of $100,000+ for the Meridien equipped Apple Macintosh 8600 Media Composer (with SCSI DRIVES) in order to make themselves attractively hire-able.    I I eventually found someone hiring who took a chance on me.  And while I worked as an assistant on AVID, I scraped up enough money to buy a newer mac and along with it: Final Cut Pro 3, which at $899 was closer in my range and made it possible to edit at least some videos.  And with Final Cut it has all the same concepts that Avid had. It just had a slightly different interface and there were some simple technical differences you had to know.   It was pretty stable, you could run It on a laptop - and I could finally get my movie cut!

 

Fast forward 6 years and I was fresh off the plane in Australia – and working at an Apple Reseller’s service department.  Final Cut had momentum – more and more features were cutting on it, and with more and more companies adopting it, Avid was losing market share. If not with the feature films in LA, then with companies like the Australian Broadcasting Company.   My Apple reseller sent me to get trained ‘officially’ by Apple to become a certified trainer. (Incidentally, it was at that first meeting where I met Ché and around that time I met Iain! We were so young) 

 

This was the best thing ever, because even though I was subsequently sent off to re-train AVID editors who were now being sent by their post supervisors to these courses (and were none-too-happy about it) I was meeting post pros and getting valuable connections.   And FC really seemed to be making the jump.   I recertified and recertified again as a Trainer.  Apple sent me around the country and I met a lot of amazing people.   Finally, I felt like a pro.   Even though I was training on Final Cut, when I finally hooked up and got work as an editor on large network shows, it was back to Avid Media Composer.  You had to know both, but with some careful remapping of keyboard functions, I could flit back and forth without too much trouble. Now if I went for an interview and said I had my own system, Final Cut was legitimized.  I cut an entire series of sports ENG news for Sky TV, and it was the norm.  Heady days.  My career was blossoming.

 

And then, after I came back to Canada,  in 2011, I was the first to buy and download Final Cut X.  And I think I had the reaction many people had that day : 

 

What.The.Hell ?

 

I staggered through the windows, tried importing a project (fun fact: you couldn’t!) I got frustrated, and like some of the subjects admit to in Off the Tracks, I shut it off in frustration, though not before I (somewhat less-confidently than before) recertified as a trainer.

 

My experience was a lot like many editors. As my friend Iain says in the movie: “A whole lot of people got really emotional and didn’t look back, which is a big shame”. And this is where I started to gear up my brain with Off The Tracks confronting me on this absolutely emotional point:  because to hear any one of the subjects in Off The Tracks tell it, I should have headed right back into it and become fluent in this new layout and plan. I should have cast aside my old projects, (not to mention my in-progress projects!) And learned what I could.   And had I done that, I would have found it a rewarding experience. Perhaps I would have stuck with it. I wish I could have!

 

But my brain didn’t kick in, and my heart did.   I was a little ticked - I wasn’t a kid starting out any more, I was an employed editor who had just apparently lost my home editing suite and been told that the one I had was going to be retired quickly.    The one they replaced it with was not able to do half the things I wanted either.   Like many frustrated editors, some who had spent the last 4-6 years investing their time and their money into learning Final Cut Pro after their clients or studios had ditched Avid Media Composer for a more cost-effective solution now saw their entire suite setup be made obsolete overnight.    While, Final Cut 7 wasn’t necessarily going to disappear overnight, but Apple had cut off life support, deciding instead to nurture its new baby, all copies of Final Cut Studio (still shipping on DVDs from stores) were pulled. (only after great outcry were they re-instated)

 

Yeah,  I threw up my hands and said “f*** it” .

 

Like a highschool breakup that leaves its mark for life, I think Apple Final Cut scarred me that June. I didn’t scream or yell or write angry posts anywhere, though I know of a few people who did.  Editors older than I was –and let’s remember that all editors are on the grumpy spectrum to begin with --- were PISSED.   Lots of derisive talk was had around water coolers as we waited for our Avid Renders to process (or for our (@*#$& systems to reboot after a segment fault!)

But everything that came afterwards, every argument from the ‘Avid’ side of the aisle can probably be traced back to those who lost their livelihood and in turn their personal investment in the product. And since then every argument from ‘Apple’s side’ has been met with non committal “Meh” or a derisive chortle from the….I dunno, let’s call them AVIDers.

 

As Aviders nursed their hurt, Final Cut Xers’ early adopters were enthusiastically learning everything they could.  And they couldn’t understand the other side. This app was going to speed up editing! It was going to make story-telling easier.  And with the zeal of true believers, they wanted to share what they saw as the amazing potential of this app.  It wasn’t perfect, but man it could be.    

 

But every time they tried to share how cool the magnetic timeline was, all most Avid editors heard was that the tools they were using was wrong.  And this caused some issues. And like all debated issues on the internet… it just got mean. Pro editors listed all the big productions that used Avid. Final Cut Xers just said that this new way is awesome and look at how brave Apple was in seeing the future and designing this new paradigm to meet it.  The ‘old way’ of doing things was outdated and the studio system was too scared to take risks, preferring instead to keep things the way they had always been.  When dismissed, FCXers, finally fed up being called ‘hobbyists’, started to call the AvidEditors ‘dinosaurs’ who couldn’t embrace change.   I remember at the 2017 LA Editfest there was a round of chuckles when Final Cut X was mentioned. The old retort returned:  AVIDers big putdown was “to be a professional you need to know Avid”  New versus old, change versus tradition. It went on and on.

 

I had my own back and forth with Iain, and considering I was only 31, I can’t believe how grumpy I was.  Iain really tried to get me to open my mind. He tried, my god, he really tried to reach me with messages about how the newest update was cool.    He NEVER claimed it was perfect, but he talked up the horsepower and how limber X was compared to AVID.    But even if I did update and poke around the newest edition, I would be left shaking my head and writing him back saying it was a ‘quaint’ program meant for Youtube videos and not much more. I may have been sarcastic once or twice (sorry Iain)

 

And I think that’s the troubling issue I came face to face with in watching this movie. I remember getting so frustrated with Apple, and with myself. And watching it I couldn’t believe I didn’t want to learn it at all. That I had hit this sort of wall. Being someone who had moved continents 3 times, I always had assumed I embraced change, but I just couldn’t get my head around this professional change.  I hated being told I was wrong  or using outdated tools.  All I could hear was how Final Cut does X better and how it is the future and I’m stuck living in the past. Heck, I guarantee you those who hate to hear how Final Cut does things better than Avid or Premiere isn’t going to be swayed by anything that is said, or anything that is shown in this movie. They are happy on their new PC workstations and don’t even want to hear it.   There is a sequence from the Final Cut Tour where they demonstrate how you move clips around in a timeline from Premiere, and then show how fast and easy it is doing the exact same movement in the exact same project with Final Cut.    “Who needs tracks!” “Embrace the new paradigm”.   It reads like a new religion and a promo video from Apple (which incidentally did not pay and does not endorse this video) It felt – briefly – like I was being dragged back to 2011 and stewing in frustration.

 

And I think everyone’s just tired of this old argument. Who cares, really?  Wes Plate says in the movie (and in fact the Trailer!): “I’m sad that people hate Final Cut X, and I’m sad that people who love Final Cut X feel like they’re oppressed: I just want us all to get over it.”  And I couldn’t agree more.  When I let go and ‘got over’ being told that the technical tool you use Is right or wrong, then I think I was able to enjoy this story again because it dealt with a more exciting and gratifying subject: how the art of storytelling is changing. 

 

I believe this is the point that Olsen is trying to get at as well.  I caught a good interview with him if you want a primer on his film, and he’s talking on ThisGuyEdits youtube channel. (https://youtu.be/1Acr37xjumo ) In it he says he’s not interested in selling millions of copies of Final Cut X. He’s interested in the art and craft of story-telling.   This doc makes the point that if you take the technical out of it; if you stop arguing like two carpenters over what kind of hammer and nail is best, then you can begin a more interesting conversation:  how to build a better piece of furniture


Off The Tracks made me think more about how I came to learn my craft and how I continue to improve myself. It also made me face my strong feelings and opinions on the tools I use and how I keep learning skills on how to tell a story.  Those skills may be in learning a new program, but mostly they are listening, reading and watching other’s stories.  It’s so much more than a tiny piece of software.   I think if you are confident enough as a story teller (maybe I needed to reach that point in my career where I was confident enough) you can move past what tool you use and have a great talk about where our storytelling culture is going.  And that’s a conversation worth having.