Here at Frame.io we make a concerted effort to encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion within our company—and in the media and tech industries at large. But the very fact that achieving diversity requires concerted efforts demonstrates just how far we still have to go.
Even with the Academy’s recent move to diversify their membership and the notable increase in Black-helmed films and shows in 2020, it’s telling that when Black History Month rolls around we still have to seek out Black editors to address the disparity. And the same could be said for many of the behind-the-scenes and post-production industry roles.
We recently had the good fortune to speak with editor and motion graphics artist Alex “Splice” Jones to discuss his creative insights, and his experience as a person of color in a predominantly white industry.
Alex’s impressive reel includes music videos for artists like Panic! At The Disco, Diplo, and Steve Aoki, and commercials for Disney, Nissan, LG, Sony, and Skechers.
In our interview, Alex very candidly shared how recent events like the death of George Floyd and the BLM movement have impacted him personally and professionally.
Alex was raised in a Chicago suburb, and realized in high school that he loved filmmaking in general, but editing in particular.
After making movies for school announcements that he cut in iMovie, he enrolled in Columbia College and focused on editing for the full four years. He then moved to Los Angeles after interning, where he got his first full-time job cutting for a company that produced social media content.
“It was definitely a crucible,” Alex says.“We’d start in the morning with a script, the host would come in and shoot it, and we’d need to have between two and five videos posted by 3pm each day. But it taught me a lot. It taught me how to work quickly and how to take creative control, because the turnaround was so tight. I really had to fire on all cylinders to get everything done.”
It also taught him that he most enjoyed working on short-form content. After two years, during which he and the other editor’s workload increased to six videos a day (after they cut his salary), Alex had had enough and made the decision to go freelance. He’d already been cutting on the side, working on projects with former college friends, and through his network started doing more music videos and commercials.
In an industry that’s so dependent on networking and connections, Alex’s reputation and skills kept him steadily busy for the last eight years. But as a freelancer who was primarily working from home, that meant he was less aware of the less-than-diverse state of the wider industry. And then George Floyd was killed.
“It really broke me down,” Alex says. “I’m mixed race and grew up in a predominantly white community, but my family never discussed systemic racism and violence so there was a massive disconnect for me when it came to my identity. In the past, it was difficult for me to fully engage with these tragic murders and brutalizations of Black people by the police. I felt them, but I just couldn’t let my mind fully go there for fear of what it would bring up inside of me. At a certain point it can just feel hopeless, and I didn’t know where to begin.”
“My girlfriend is Black British Ugandan, though, and seeing her perspective on the kind of racial tension that exists here compared to other parts of the world really opened my eyes. Police killings of Black people have become almost sickly normalized in the U.S., but as soon as people take a step back and look at this issue on the world’s stage, it becomes fairly obvious that this is an overwhelmingly American issue. That perspective showed me that another way of life is possible.”
At a certain point it can just feel hopeless, and I didn’t know where to begin.
It prompted Alex to reflect back, and he realized that over the course of his professional career he’d only ever edited one project from a Black director, and met very few people of color in behind-the-scenes roles along the way.
In black and white
If you’ve been paying attention to the trades over the past couple of years, you’ll know how much attention is being focused on the issue of diversity in the industry.
Variety reported in early 2020 that films with diverse casts perform best at the box office. But the disparity between what happens in front of the camera versus what happens behind (and beyond) remains significant.
The 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, published by the UCLA College of Social Sciences, notes that among directors and writers, people of color are underrepresented by a factor of more than three to one. When looking at studio heads, the number is more like four to one.
But what about in areas like editing or cinematography or visual effects? Anecdotally, those remain predominantly white based on observation, underscored by the reaction to a recent social media post.
Nothing changes if you just continue to hire the same people that you know. The rooms that I’m in look the same as they did 20 years ago.
Like Alex, editor Ri-Karlo Handy has observed that he is often the only person of color on projects. And, like Alex, he wanted to help change that. After being contacted by producers looking for Black Union editors, Handy put out the call on a post-production Facebook group. While he received a flurry of positive responses, he also received several accusing him of anti-white racism. Lawyer and actor Nicole French took the thread to Twitter where it got the attention of Ava DuVernay, among many others.
So here is the original post: pic.twitter.com/IM4Nir8yzi— Nicole French (@NicoleFrenchEsq) June 16, 2020
The barriers to entry
In Alex’s view, there are so many reasons why that’s the case, and why he’s one of the fortunate ones.
He was able to get a four-year education in his chosen field, and make connections that would help him build a career. But even stepping a little further back, his ability to have access to equipment while in high school helped him get a taste of the possibility that working in the film industry could be attainable.
It’s no secret that arts education has been on the decline, particularly in public schools with larger minority populations. Without that kind of early access or exposure, young people of color are immediately disadvantaged. When combined with a far lower enrollment rate in four-year film schools—particularly private schools that saddle a new graduate with significant student debt—the opportunities drop more significantly.
And while there are plenty of editors who haven’t gone the film school route, even self-taught editors need access to equipment. “The cost of entry is high,” Alex says. “Getting a powerful enough computer, editing software—it takes money to get a good working setup, and that’s a huge roadblock for Black people who come from lower-income households. It can be a complete non-starter for someone looking to break into the industry.”
It also takes being financially secure enough in order to be available to take on last-minute projects or to work beyond the original booking. Many aspiring filmmakers have second (and less flexible) jobs to support their filmmaking pursuits, and may miss out on opportunities as a result.
The way forward
Alex acknowledges that he’s been fortunate to have an established network of friends and colleagues, but feels that it’s going to take the efforts of people across the industry to not just raise awareness but to make substantive changes.
Like Ri-Karlo Handy, Alex believes that it’s vital for those in the position of hiring and staffing to look outside their networks and widen their talent pool. “It’s easy for people to just keep hiring the same people they already know, and if that circle isn’t very diverse, things don’t change,” he says.
“Those in hiring positions need to recognize that there is immense value in bringing someone diverse in, who has a completely different point of view. We don’t want to be seen as ‘diversity hires.’ We want to be respected for the talent we bring to the table.”
Yet, things are slowly beginning to change. At the top of the industry, filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Barry Jenkins, Regina King, and Steve McQueen are making efforts to not just tell stories with diverse casts but to also increase diversity within their crews. Recently, Oscar-nominated animation studio Laika announced that they are donating funds to create a stop-motion animation studio at Bowie State University in Maryland, an HBCU (Historically Black College and University). And right here, at Frame.io, we’ve tried to do our part by using tools like Jopwell to source Black talent, and partnering with CodeNation to host students from under-resourced high schools at our offices.
There’s also something to be said for technology helping to democratize content creation. “The accessibility has changed so much, even since I started my career,” Alex says. “People don’t have to feel as limited by the technology anymore. It’s incredible that you pick up a phone now and make a film. And you can edit in Resolve for free. I’ve been using Frame.io for a long time, and it’s easy to use and available on an iPhone and really connects you to people who are working anywhere. So that opens up opportunities for people to create more easily or work from places that aren’t necessarily the expensive production hubs.”
Beyond that, Alex himself is making his own effort to help others by sharing his story and mentoring. “Black visibility in post is absolutely crucial for our success. I never really felt like my story could be important to others, but now I think maybe I could be a positive influence on someone else.”
Alex remains optimistic about the future progress of diversifying the industry. “We’re starting to see things shift a bit. People want to see stories that depict experiences that are different from their own, but there are also a lot of similarities. It’s so refreshing to see all of the new perspectives being shown in film and TV coming from diverse teams. Those stories and experiences have always been there, but to be able to now inhabit someone else’s point of view as an audience member for a moment and to find that common ground is a powerful feeling.”
While we hope that a day will arrive when we don’t have to talk about diversity in the industry anymore, we’re just glad that in the meantime there are people like Alex who are willing to. And who, like many others, remain committed to sharing their stories, wisdom, and support.