The Rise and Rise of the Editor

One person, one idea. That’s the Auteur Theory, which refers to a film director being the solo heart and soul of a movie. A little thing called non-linear editing blew all that up. Lightworks, Avid and now Final Cut Pro are insider names to most media consumers, but if you think these technologies are a small aspect of the media that is placed before you, well, you’d be wrong. These technologies are game changers. Why? Technology drives culture. In the 1970s, VHS became the vehicle of choice for pornography. In a wonderful assignation of tech-meets-flesh, the old men who masturbated under blankets in sleazy theaters were replaced by people masturbating at home. VHS, propelled on a surging sea of porno, became a dominant way to deliver movies, leading to the decline of Western civilization and Richard Simmons’ exercise videos, though not necessarily in that order.

Can you feel the burn? It’s not your fast-twitch muscle fibers that are on fire. It’s the immolation of pop culture, consuming itself almost as fast as it can be produced.

Final Cut Pro and Avid and television are an especially combustible mix. These non-linear systems have made post-production cheaper but they’ve also dumbed it down. Anybody can edit now and it’s way faster than it used to be. Clients can order changes and expect them overnight. Multiple editors can work on the same project at the same time, even in different cities. Reality television has been shaped by non-linear editing far more than it’s been shaped by our appetite for cheating-spouse drama or seeing if people can lose weight if they are yelled at enough. Hours of footage can be digitized and then tossed at legions of editors who shape the story. Yes, that’s right. It’s really the editors who are shaping the story, not the directors who shot the footage or the executive producers who are spending the budget. Editors, sometimes working with story editors, are running things.

This is a good thing, I think, because editors see more footage than anybody and are in the best position to judge it. Further, this editorial or curatorial function has spread like a virus across all media. Look at the Huffington Post. The Queen of the Aggregators has risen to royal status by curating the news. It started out by being a master editor and gatherer of content. So many other laudable sites, like Boing Boing, Treehugger, Mashable and TechCrunch do a little reporting on their own, but they are editors at heart. Less hunting, more gathering. Mostly curating and assembling content in their digital workshops.

Thanks to my friend H.A. Arnarson for giving me the idea to write about this. Recently, he’s been an editor-supervising producer on a show called “1000 Ways to Die.” We first met ten years ago when I hired him to edit a documentary I was executive producing about Arnold Schwarzenegger. The production was floundering a little bit and I as executive producer was doing my job, spending the budget in quiet desperation as we hunted for the cut. Then H.A. came along and made it work with his editorial vision.

The editor is the new auteur.

Lee Schneider is creative director at Red Cup Agency.  He’s on Twitter as @docuguy.

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