Remotely Possible: How Working Has Changed, But Also Not

Remotely Possible: How Working Has Changed, But Also Not

In the past two years the film and TV industry (and the world) has gone through an accelerated pace of change. Now, as restrictions lift and we return to some semblance of “normal life,” where does that leave the future of remote working? Should we all stick with working from home or are there inherent benefits to returning to the office?

In this follow up to my article written back in April 2020, 10 Things Editors Need To Know Before Working From Home, I wanted to take stock of where things have landed, what might have been lost along the way and what the future might hold for remote working within the film and TV industry.

Hopefully, it will serve as a useful overview of the current remote work ecosystem, broken down into pros and cons that might help you make informed decisions about your own remote workflows. (And if you have any suggestions or observations of your own, feel free to drop them in the comments section below.)

When remote works

We may have had our reservations about packing up and heading home to work, but it’s safe to say that we handled it pretty well. All things considered.

Remote really is normal now

One thing that is clear is that everyone’s doing it.

If you scroll through the responses to this tweet from editor Dan Wolfmeyer, you’ll see the almost unanimous love for remote work—with the occasional nod towards a preference for a hybrid model—from editors working across the content spectrum, from Netflix shows, corporates, feature docs, and animation.

Everyone is used to remote work by now. Everyone understands the benefits. And everyone has a sense of the toolsets and technologies required to work remotely effectively.

As someone who was already working remotely, it’s nice to now have a greater range of options and improvements to choose from. We’ve seen major advances when it comes to:

  • Collaborating with clients in real-time
  • Generating and leveraging feedback
  • Transferring files around the world at various stages of the workflow.

While some businesses shuttered their offices and embraced a fully remote work environment, I’m not sure that we’ve truly hit the fullest extent of the pendulum swing towards a ‘remote-first’ working world just yet. (In fact, there are tremendous benefits to be had from the pendulum swinging back towards in-person work environments, which I’ll address later.)

But for now I’m glad that the new normal includes a viable remote option that delivers a more balanced and accessible work culture for many sectors within our industry.

Defining ‘remote’

Before we go much further it might be helpful to define more precisely what I mean by remote working. For me, it’s an all-encompassing term for anyone working ‘not in-house’ when previously that would have been the default and only option.

So whether you’re using a PC Over IP (PCoIP) service to dial into your studio’s in-house server and streaming pixels to a simple home setup, or you’re working locally from a RAID on your shelf with dailies you downloaded overnight in your brand new garden office studio, to me, you’re working ‘remotely’.

In moving forward, what tools, technologies and lessons learned over the past few years can we embrace in order to make remote-work work better for everyone?

Farther apart, closer together

While director Denis Villenuve has often enthused about the benefits of being in the room with his long-time collaborator and editor Joe Walker, in this quote from Joe’s recent Art of The Cut interview, you get a sense of both the benefits and pitfalls of remote attended sessions.

As he puts it, “Denis was in Montreal and we worked remotely. In fact, it was interesting to me that I had the opportunity to actually read a scene on his face while he’s watching it. I could look at him reacting to it, which is a very quick and honest way of seeing if it worked. I can almost tell what he’s going to say.”

The benefit being that Joe could read the scene on Denis’ face for ‘honest’ feedback in real-time, while the pitfall is that the edit could no longer happen ‘in the air between us’ as is their preference. Here’s the full video…

At the same time, Joe also describes how much he enjoyed working from home—especially being able to implement fixes to problems that only occurred to him at 3 am.

And while working remotely and getting feedback asynchronously—instead of live over a video link—allows you the freedom to work at your own pace and in your own time-zone, ‘remote-attended sessions’ seem to be the next logical step for most editors to utilize from time to time.

So using a video link platform to bridge the gap between asynchronous remote feedback and synchronous on-site collaboration makes a lot of sense.

But the issue here for most freelance editors is that some of these services have expensive monthly subscriptions. These can be problematic for keeping overheads down, especially if the use of the service is sporadic enough to mean that it doesn’t justify the ongoing cost.

As a freelance editor, I’d rather pay a slight premium to use these kinds of services as and when I need to, (even at a per minute price), so that they are still an option I can offer for remote attended editing sessions. I can then also charge that per-session cost to my clients directly.

Joe Walker’s home-based editing setup for Dune.
Joe Walker’s home-based editing setup for Dune.

That said, if it is possible to get everyone in the same room at the same time to collaborate on a project, there are immediate improvements to the quality of communication (verbal or otherwise), warmth of relationships and efficiency of decision making.

This obviously comes with the (now, more inconvenient) expense of everyone’s time both in terms of the session itself, but also in the time and expense of traveling to and from the session.

“Today, jumping on and off a video call is simply easier and more efficient than putting on real clothes and leaving the house to travel for an hour or more.”

On some occasions that ‘time-cost’ might be well worth it, but by nature humans default to the path of least resistance. Today, jumping on and off a video call is simply easier and more efficient than putting on real clothes and leaving the house to travel for an hour or more.

Either way, reliable, secure and instantaneous remote collaboration sessions will increasingly become another valuable tool in the remote editor’s toolkit.

Spread-out studios

Thankfully there are now also more and much improved tools available to facilitate remote work than ever before.

While I’ve not needed to use a PCoIP service, I know a lot of editors who have been happily remotely connecting to their on-premises media storage via one. This has the feel of continuing to work as if they’re still sat at their desk in the office. With a suitable internet connection and the right set up apparently there really is no tangible difference.

A benefit to this way of working is that all media ingest, management and archiving can happen on a single server, rather than trying to keep various local outposts in sync or adequately stocked with the correct media.

For larger studios and post-houses this seems to have been the de facto approach to remote work in the past couple of years.

Interestingly, for UK-based animation studio Jellyfish Pictures, a centralized PCoIP platform was their working model for their ‘virtual studios’ even before the pandemic hit.

Everyone came into the same physical office to do their work (as normal), but with only thin-clients on every desk, connected to the central server. No one had an expensive, beefy, local machine on their desk.

“No one had an expensive, beefy, local machine on their desk.”

When the pandemic hit, they used the same virtual platform to work remotely and have since leveraged this to operate a new global virtual studio, targeting talent wherever they find it.

This kind of elastic infrastructure allows for studios to expand quickly and nimbly to meet changing production demands. They can add extra talent and the required desktop clients very quickly compared to traditional hardware approaches. The established remote connections also means that they can access a global talent pool just as rapidly.

Even more flexible teams

Personally, as an individual freelancer and occasional small team member, some of the things I’ve been using recently include PostLab Drive’s Drop Off links for asset collection from clients. This allows you to send them a link, into which they can throw anything they like, and it appears seamlessly in your PostLab Drive. No more expired WeTransfer links or clunky FTP logins to deal with.

This is also preferable to having to download hundreds of individual assets or large folders from existing cloud storage services like Dropbox or Google Drive. These kinds of platforms often have less than ideal capabilities for media management. Unfortunately, these types of cloud storage providers seem to be the go-to resource for my corporate and charity clients.

I’ve relied on Frame.io’s easy to use video review platform to collect feedback from even the least tech-savvy clients for pretty much every project for the past few years. Increasingly, the Frame.io Adobe Premiere Pro extension has been indispensable for actioning that feedback in the most efficient manner possible—without even leaving my timeline.

Whatever system you’re using to get media into your remote edit suite there are several productivity bottlenecks to avoid, such as:

  • Individually downloading large numbers of files in a slow and repetitive fashion
  • Waiting for assets to be grouped into Zip files made by the cloud storage provider and then hoping these don’t fail while downloading
  • Frustration at lost time when downloads fail part way through, requiring another attempt to download them
  • Syncing large amounts of unnecessary data via desktop apps after joining a client folder, when all you need is to grab a few specific files.

Any platform or service that can help you avoid these time-sucks will be worth every penny.

I’ve talked more about managing data in and out of a remote edit suite more in my previous working from home article.

Whatever workflow you’ve personally concocted, it pays to know all the options available and in development today. These newer tools and services can save you a lot of time and effort, compared to defaulting to emulating previous in-house procedures.

More collaborative workflows

When it comes to working remotely as part of a team there have also been recent improvements to the intricate dance of managing both project sharing (and locking) and asset mirroring across multiple team members in multiple locations.

There are many possible approaches for this kind of remote team workflow:

  • Dialing-in via PCoIP to a central shared media storage system like an Avid Nexus, which is also available to Adobe Premiere Pro editors.
  • The simple—but not graceful—method of duplicating local hard drives and sharing projects over email.
  • The less labor-intensive and less error-prone option of using platforms with integrations like PostLab and Frame.io to manage that interaction for you, as iJustine does with her FCP centric workflow.
  • Adobe’s Productions and Team Projects also provide a similar project sharing workflow option.

It’s worth noting that when you move to a remote team workflow, you should dedicate time to ensuring everyone on the team knows how best to work together.

They should understand the mechanics of project sharing and locking, the specific details of managing proxy workflows, and have a solid end-to-end grasp of how the whole workflow functions across the organization.

In a team context it’s very easy for each editor to dive into a new workflow, but still have divergent assumptions about how it all comes together in the end.

These assumptions can collide and derail the workflow when it is time to finish. For example, an early mistake like mismatched proxies created by different editors now won’t relink. Or the perennial problem of digging up missing assets that were only saved to a local Downloads folder.

While in-house collaborative team workflows benefited from over-the-shoulder checks and balances and access to unified central storage, the disjointed nature of remote work requires more time to be invested up front. Especially when it comes to communication.

When remote work doesn’t

As the pandemic forced us all into remote working, we discovered some tremendous benefits. Overworked creatives found that zero commuting hours gave them more time with family or personal pursuits. Businesses that shuttered offices saw a huge drop in overheads without a loss in productivity. Everyone figured out how to Zoom.

But now that a million ‘micro-interactions’ have been eradicated from many people’s daily working lives, that they would otherwise have had with the rest of their team, are we really better off?

Does remote work disadvantage more extroverted creatives, who thrive on working directly with others in the same room at the same time? Does it hamper the productivity of those individuals who benefit from working in a more structured environment? Where they have more clearly defined tasks and deadlines than an isolated self-starter workspace allows?

Man working alone at home
Are we really better off working from home?

Just as I used to caution some creative friends against freelancing, which can often feel lonely or the sole domain of the ultra-disciplined, it’s important to know yourself. What do you need from your work environment to perform at your best and can remote deliver that for you?

What do you need from your work environment to perform at your best and can remote deliver that for you?

The following items may seem intangible, but it’s hard to deny that they’re essential to our careers, our creativity, and our culture. So it’s important to ask, would a return to an in-person office environment foster a level of creativity that can’t be created any other way? Here’s a few arguments that favor a trip back to the office.

In-office collaboration
Finding that creative spark might be easier in company.

Big ideas in small spaces

Most of our remote work setups are a far cry from a custom-built artist’s studio at the end of a leafy garden. Is hunched over your laptop at a cluttered kitchen table the place where you’ll have your best ideas and do your best, most creative work?

Rather, is there actually a creative advantage to traveling into a noisy, bustling, melting-pot of a city? A place where ideas will collide, new culture is formed and unplanned inspirations are encountered?

Does that hated commute actually give your subconscious the pause it needs to chew on a thorny problem, spitting out the solution while you wait in line for coffee?

Will those of us who trudge into the office on a regular basis actually be fueling a stronger creative career over the long-haul, simply by rubbing up against more of the world?

Collaboration requires connection

Pixar Building
Atrium of Steve Jobs Building at Pixar, picture by Bill Abbott, CC.BY–SA 2.0

By working alone at home, we may have robbed ourselves of those ‘pop your head in for a minute’ moments where you glance at something cool someone else is working on and find your inspiration. Or where you can offer up a solution to a common problem you happen to spot someone wrestling with.

“It’s hard to describe just how valuable the resulting chance encounters are.”

We might be able to approximate these moments on Zoom ‘lunch and learn’ sessions but it’s not the same. It’s one of the reasons that Pixar’s main building is famously constructed in order to maximize chance encounters. As CEO Ed Catmull describes it, “Most buildings are designed for some functional purpose, but ours is structured to maximize inadvertent encounters… and it’s hard to describe just how valuable the resulting chance encounters are.”

Mentorship needs moments

Many of the most valuable creative lessons of my career have come from sitting alongside another editor, director, or producer and receiving a word of feedback, wisdom, or encouragement. These would not have had the same lasting impact as a Slack message or email.

In an industry that has historically thrived on, and nurtured talent through, those elbow to elbow mentorship moments, we need to do more to preserve and encourage them. But the pace and volume of digital production was already diluting such opportunities, even before the pandemic.

“In an industry that has historically thrived on, and nurtured talent through, those elbow to elbow mentorship moments, we need to do more to preserve and encourage them.”

Are we doing ourselves and future generations of creatives a disservice by not finding a way to preserve them to some degree? It could even be argued that the more established you are, the more responsibility you have to influence others in positive ways.

Wide, but not deep

Lastly, I hope we’re not sacrificing the intangible yet essential benefit of human relationship and connection at the altar of productivity and efficiency.

In a society where many of us spend more time at the office than any other social environment, are we dissolving the opportunity to form dependable friendships and establish informal support systems between the members of a team, that just can’t be recreated as easily over a video feed?

Many find friendships in their work environments.
Friendships are often forged in work environments.

These friendships are not only essential for a satisfying life in and out of work, but they are also so often the basis of selection for future employment. We tend to hire those we know and like and how well can you know someone you’ve never met?

The future is hybrid

In my view, the future of remote workflows is only going to get better. As demand stays high, prices are likely to fall, new features will rise, and creative teams will adapt to the benefits (and limitations) of remote workflows.

So if you’re an editor, assistant, or post-super, now is the time to familiarize yourself with this emerging remote ecosystem. The more knowledge and experience you acquire of these tools, platforms and workflows, the greater the opportunity you’ll see in the future.

If your offices are as nice as Picrow’s, you’d probably want to get back to them.
If your offices are as nice as Picrow’s, you’ll probably want to get back to them.

That said, there are still professional, personal, and creative advantages to be gained from both in–person and remote working environments.

While some have championed a remote-first future, I expect that many businesses will fall into a hybrid of both. Maintaining the tangible and intangible rewards of bringing people together, while offering staff the flexibility and lifestyle balance of remote work.

Whatever camp you fall into right now; whether you’re working entirely remotely, back at the office five days a week, or something in between, I hope that your work is working for you. If it’s not; if there are changes that need to be made, there’s never been a better time.

Thank you to Jonny Elwyn for contributing this article.

Jonny Elwyn is a freelance editor and blogger who has been living and working in London, UK for the past 10 years. Having grown up with a deep love for film and a healthy geek interest in all things technical, editing is his perfect job. Off the back of a decade of successful freelancing, Jonny has written a 100 page primer on How To Be A Freelance Creative—a straight-forward, practical guide to building a freelance creative career from the ground up. He also runs a blog on all things post production at jonnyelwyn.co.uk.

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