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The Editor's Spin: A Son of the Circus
Posted Apr 1, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Somewhere in the deep recesses of my CD collection, I have a bootleg Bruce Springsteen disc, circa 1973, during which Bruce introduces the goofy mock-epic "Wild Billy's Circus Story" with the line, "Here's a circus song—all our numbers are circus songs." Thirty years later, the Boss's traveling circus is still going strong, with most of the original acrobats in tow and intact. But these days, as they open live sets with Edwin Starr's "War," perform a half dozen new songs each night that reflect on post-9/11 America, and electrify their encores with "Born in the U.S.A."—perhaps the bitterest anti-war song ever written—it seems like the circus songs have almost entirely given way to war songs.

I'd be loath to draw too many parallels between circuses and wars—from Barnums new and old—though I might observe that they're both generally promoted by hucksters who prey on suckers. And in the hope that war songs might seem quaint by the time this issue hits the streets, I'm just as happy to put aside the war talk and make this a circus editorial.

Which brings us to Michael Chabon's wonderful 1996 novel Wonder Boys, in which narrator Grady Tripp—a perpetually stoned professor pounding away his life on a never-ending novel—spurns computers in favor of his trusty old typewriter, musing that computers turn writing into a sort of circus that you sit back and watch. Naturally, this bit of Luddite hubris costs Tripp in the end, as the uncarboned pages of his 2,600-page unfinished novel literally blow away. Still, he shrugs it off, and forsakes the Selectric to start his next undertaking on a trustier PC. (The film version ends with Tripp hitting "Save.")

Wonder Boys is much more than a cautionary tale about saving your work; Chabon has bigger and funnier fish to fry. Still, it would be interesting to know what Grady Tripp might think of Final Draft A/V, a wildly automated screenplay generator (tagline: "Just add words") that boasts such bedazzlements as TV templates, as-you-write scene navigation, and a virtual story conference tool called CollaboWriter. (Being myself as suspicious of writing-by-committee and its co-opting of creativity as Tripp is of PC word processing, I'd proceed with caution there. But technologically, it's certainly intriguing; and as yet another way to digitize the brick-and-mortar studio, I've got to like it.)

Beyond the word-processing big-top, were Tripp not so much a typewriter purist as a DVD authoring purist who memorized the 300 rules of the DVD spec as an early Scenarist adopter, he might look with similar scorn on "abstraction layer" tools from Impression to Expression and MyDVD to MovieFactory that abstract the process into various levels of cartoonish wizardry and bring the DVD authoring circus to folks who no more know the DVD spec than lifetime word processors know the feel of cold metal Underwood keys.

And in the sense that they create a world of illusion, sleight-of-hand, or phony feats of derring-do, the tools that bring the digital studio to a single ordinary PC and a semi-ordinary user are indeed circus-like. But perhaps there's a stronger parallel in the pervasive notion of "running away to join the circus," where Toby Tyler found the thrill and mystery of circus life an irresistible alternative to dead-end small-town life. But it wasn't merely an escape route—it was also an entry-point to show business for someone born without money, looks, or exceptional talent.

Of course, walking highwires and swallowing fire aren't for everyone, and neither is DVD authoring, or professional non-linear editing, for that matter. If content is king, skill and knowledge are its courtiers, and technological shortcuts are no substitute for talent. Still, it's fascinating to see the shortcuts multiply and converge. Roxio's Easy CD Creator sprang from Corel's CD Creator, the first tool that let you burn CDs without knowing anything about them. A half-decade later, in a market with little room for CD burning-only tools—need-to-know basis or not—Roxio has astutely introduced in version 6 an easy asset management interface for know-nothing DVD authors. Following closely on Roxio's heels is Ahead, who have been in the business just as long with their Nero product, and recently debuted the similarly equipped Nero 6 Ultra Edition.

Meanwhile, the best-known quantity in mid-level non-linear editing, Adobe Systems, has kept the wolves from the door by augmenting their mainstay NLE Premiere with a first-generation DVD authoring engine called Encore. (Sonic Foundry has done likewise by adding DVD Architect to Vegas, a move they claim has let them "leapfrog over Premiere.") Since most mid-level DVD authoring involves designing menus in another ubiquitous Adobe tool, Photoshop, I've got to give the still-unseen Encore a certain theoretical edge for being designed by engineers with access to Photoshop code. Of course, time will tell whether all this skill diversification adds prime-of-life versatility or just guarantees a few more years of pre-obsolescence, like senescent acrobats turning geek.

I doubt these tools or vendors will put themselves out of business anytime soon, at least not before they've had some impact on the markets for authors and end-users. And what will that impact be? My guess is that as more integrated, "abstracted" tools bring more ingenues into the business—and in the case of Premiere/Encore, equip more single-tool sophisticates to dabble in other areas—what we'll see is not so much the blurring of lines between different types of DVD creations as writ-large distinctions between viable commercial product and internal consumption-only stuff. And, regardless of whose screen is hosting the circus, under the real big-top will still be the entertainers and the entertained. Which is almost certainly not what Adobe, Roxio, Final Draft, and others had in mind when they put that circus on the screen. But all things considered, it's one kind of polarized world I can happily live in.

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