Stepping Out from Behind the Curtain

A Conversation with Avid's Tom Ohanian

Interview by Nick T. Spark

Thomas A. Ohanian is chief editor and a Corporate Fellow at Avid Technology. Since joining the company as employee number eight in 1989, he has been part of the design and development team that received an Emmy Award for the Media Composer and an Academy Award for Scientific and Engineering Achievement for the Film Composer. In March the Film Composer was honored again, this time with an Academy Award of Merit.

Thomas Ohanian with Avid Technology's Oscar for the Film Composer system.

Tom is also an accomplished editor who has cut documentaries, commercials and feature films. He became a member of Local 700 this past January.

How did you become chief editor at Avid?

I was working in an editorial facility called Viz Wiz in Boston during the early '80s. [Avid founder] Bill Warner, who was marketing manager of Apollo Computer at the time, saw us in the Yellow Pages. He called up and asked if we had computerized editing. Then he came over and brought this box of VHS and 3/4" tapes and slides - he figured you could get it all into a computer and just put it together. We were like, no, we have to get this to a common denominator, 1" tape, and then we can put it all together! And that was a big mind trip for him.

But from that he got this idea that editing on computers in the same way that we edit documents on a word processor was a viable thing to pursue. Pete Faciano [now a Corporate Fellow, Advance Development, at Avid] said to me, "You dabble in computers - I didn't know a lot about computers but I knew a heck of a lot about editing - I think you would really like developing this product." I was cutting six days a week, and every Sunday I would go over to this small machine shop where there were five software engineers and two consultants. I would go in and speak, and they would tape me. I would say, "It would be nice to be able to do this..." It went on like that for a while, and then the system really started to come together.

When was the coming out party?

Well, in April of '89 we went to NAB. I put the whole demonstration together using footage from a television show called Paradise. There was software compression, so the picture was like 160 x 90, four bits per pixel. We kept two bits for luminance and one bit for the color difference signals. Anyway, we had two machines and we just went nutty. We demoed non-stop. I remember Bill once asked me, "How many of these things do you think we can sell?" And I'm thinking, let's see, Montage has 30 systems out, a good thing would be to be 10 times as large as your competitor. So I said, "I think we can do 300 systems." I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen.

The Avid has survived where a number of other editing systems have failed.
Why do you think Avid emerged as top dog?

One of the greatest things about the product is that when an editor sits down to it and they think, "Oh, I want to do this thing," there invariably is a button for it, and often there are two or three ways to do it. I think if you pigeonhole somebody into doing something one way, that shows a very rigid interface, a very rigid architecture. One of the things that we had difficulty with initially was explaining to editors that you can either cut something away with the scissors, by trimming it, or by putting something else over it. They were a little overwhelmed. But that flexibility has proved to be a very good thing.

When did you finally feel that the Avid had come into its own?

I'll tell you exactly when the moment was, because I kept it on my pager: March 24, 1997, at 10:59 p.m., Mountain Standard Time. Walter Murch got up to receive his Academy Award for 'The English Patient', which he cut using the Film Composer. Obviously, a guy like that could have edited the film on paper napkins and it would have won, but the fact that we were the first digital nonlinear system to be used by a world-renowned editor who won an Academy Award for editing was... We had stood up to the test. We didn't cut the wrong piece of negative. So I think that was the moment.

That was only two years ago!

It's funny, but to put it in perspective, the Film Composer has been out only since '92. It took a little while to get accepted and then to get used. You've got to give people reasons to change. And, you know, if film is over 100 years old and we've changed how it gets edited in only seven years, that's the enormity of our contribution. Because the film industry doesn't need to change, really, because it is a well understood process. So we had to give them some advantages, and that's been very rewarding.

Another thing that has been very rewarding: A couple of old-time editors have said to me, at different places and different times, "You have given me 10 more years on my career. I thought it was all over for me." I was like, you've got to be kidding me, you're one of the best in the world at this. But they said, "You know, I'm getting old, I can't move these reels. Physically it's demanding, the kids are coming up. But now I can do it." And that, for me was a tremendous compliment. You don't get a chance to do that often in your life.

How have nonlinear systems changed the world of editorial?
What is Avid's contribution to the process?

I think the ability to experiment and still, with today's shrinking post-production schedules, know that you have gotten as much as you can out of the footage is something we have excelled at, as well as the ability to pre-visualize optical effects and accurately see what your dissolves are going to be like. Sometimes I'll see a film and think that where there might just have been a cut before, now there is a little slow motion or something, just a little optical, and I can't help but think that editors have always wanted to do things like that but couldn't. They would have had to send the film out and get it back, and it got expensive. Also, you are seeing some great preview mixes coming out of the Avid. In that whole area of experimentation, seeing your optical effects, having more audio functionality, I think we do a really good job.

As chief editor, what do you do besides help refine the
Avid's interface and functionality?

I used to do all the training for Avid, and I still reserve the right to train editors. I recently trained Thom Noble, who had just come off 'The Mask of Zorro', which he cut in Mexico on film. And just a few weeks ago I was in New York training Sandy Morse. They both picked it up right away. It's a huge thrill for me, because these are the kind of people I've always looked up to as an editor. And by the way, you also get to hear them say, "Why didn't my disk mount, Tom?" To which I reply, "Ummm... Let's try that Avid drive utility. Why don't you go and have a coffee?"

What changes are we likely to see in the next few years?

Well, a year and a half ago we had no uncompressed systems. Now we have a few for different activities. The concept of the total conform goes along with that. You start out on a Media Composer, and then everything you have done will come forward into the uncompressed product. Also, in the next couple of years we'll see highly collaborative work environments. We now have fibre channel, or Media Share, and we know how that works; I see it being extended to more people, being extended over more distance. A lot of users need to see things as they are being developed, especially effects. And if a little sequence is being developed and we can show it to the visual effects people sooner...

With the pixel-based field charts in [Version] 7.0, we can output information as to how pixels map to much larger images. It starts to build the link between film offline and film online. And I know that people are really excited about this; for example, the folks in the effects division of Sony Pictures would spend a lot of time interpreting how a shape that was overlaid on a Film Composer has to be redone at a 4k or a 2k resolution. Now we can give them accurate information right down to the pixel. So I think more data exchange, better images and much better collaboration.

How are modifications made to the Avid?
Where should editors send their suggestions?

Basically, everyone has access to the Avid BBS, and there are discussion groups on there about the Media Composer, Film Composer, etc. The product designers at Avid read all the suggestions, then we try to assign priorities to things. You pick off the ones you can. There is always a fine line between trying to do the features editors want versus the ones you have to do to stay competitive, and the ones you want to do because they take you into another range of things. So it is a balancing act.

What's the one tool every editor should be familiar with but might not be?

The Extend tool. I showed that to Joe Hutshing and Michael Tronick. They didn't know it was there and, honest to goodness, I got an e-mail from both of them the next day, "Wow, I love this button!" Basically what it is... Let's say that you've cut three shots in your sequence - actor A, a cutaway to actor B, then back to actor A - and you've checkerboarded the audio. Now you decide you want to extend this cutaway. Ordinarily that would take several steps, but with the Extend key, just mark an out point for the new ending, and this one button literally takes that cut and moves it to the new point. I use it all the time.

What are you working on now?

Well, I try to edit two independent features per year. Almost all of them have been on film, but the one I am doing now is interesting. I have never done anything like this before. It is a film called 'It Could Be Worse'. It originated on DV and we're editing on a Media Composer. Then we are going to bring it into a Symphony and redigitize it uncompressed, relink to the graphics - there's a new Relink Graphics command, thank goodness - and then output to film. So, for $55,000 we'll get a 35mm negative with all the opticals in there.

Tell us about the Academy Award of Merit. What does it mean to you?

The only way you can get one of these is to have made a contribution that changes how films are made. It is the highest achievement that the product could receive from the group of individuals who use it. They have basically said as a group, "The technical aspect of film editing has been changed and forever impacted by Avid's technology." I know on a personal level, for [senior product designer] Michael Phillips and myself, it is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to us. I consider this my craft and my profession, and I've had a role in helping co-invent something that forever will positively impact my profession. So it is like a dream come true.

Nick Spark is an assistant editor.

Reprinted from
The Motion Picture Editors Guild Newsletter
Vol. 20, No. 2 - March/April 1999

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