The Editing Robots are Coming. Now What?

 Photo:  yeowatzup  License:  Creative Commons

Photo: yeowatzup License: Creative Commons

Have you noticed that for all the exciting technology we have, all the incredible technical prowess, we seem to be telling subpar stories these days? 

We live in a entertainment world where the modern Spiderman franchise has been rebooted three times since 2002, sequel movies are rolling over higher and higher numbers at the end of their titles, and the crop of summer blockbusters shrinks with each passing year. Why is this? We have the most powerful and sophisticated technology at our fingertips, and yet it seems all we can do is remake films from the past. Why?

We can sit here and debate whether or not CGI is the problem, or whether or not production house budgets are the problem, or any other “problem”. Or, we can look at this from another angle:

In May 2015, I attended Denver, Colorado’s local meeting of Creative Mornings. The global group meets monthly in local chapters, discussing topics around themes like “Money,” or “Risk.” In May, the theme was “Robot” and the presenting pair from Take One Creative in Boulder, CO, had much to say about them. 

In their original fields of journalism and photography, Jason Houston and Hal Clifford saw the robots come with the forms of online journalism, desktop publishing, and blogging. With those came the collapse of traditional print media. The army of digital robots replaced the need for their skills. Houston and Clifford decided to quit the world of journalism and entered a new one: video production for companies telling their stories in online advertising.

The robots are coming for all of us!” they declared, admitting that the robots would even someday come for their current safe haven in video production.

But in the world of video editing, the robots aren’t just coming. They’re already here:

A few weeks ago, I read a fascinating article called shared by Jeff Bartsch over in the Power Edit group on Facebook. The article, written by Eric Escobar, discussed the way companies like Google are using “deep learning” to teach computers how to analyze images. This method has already successfully taught computers to write simple blog posts and news articles we read online every day. Now, programmers are working to make computers capable of analyzing movement, focus, and intention within video footage. Combine that, the article says, with the thousands of hours of edited material, and we can potentially teach the computer how to edit video together.

Earlier this week, I read an article from Wired about a camera produced by the start-up, Graava. Their new camera, the company says, will do the edit for you. Using technology that includes monitoring the camera’s orientation, acceleration and even the heartbeat of the camera-wearing person, the Graava camera will “know” when important and exciting footage is being recorded. Upload everything to the cloud, and Graava will take your six hour bike ride and turn it into a six minute exciting video for you, with no need to sift through hours and hours of video for the shot of your insane jump off the trail edge.

As I said, the robots are here. And they’ve come for our jobs. We can now all commence with running, screaming, picketing, and general ba-hum-buggery.

Done? 

Good.

Now what do we do?

As more and more tech like this is released, the grunt labor of video editing will be done by these computer robots. The hours of logging footage, the scrubbing through footage for ten seconds of killer b-roll, the simple newsreel-type edits, and cataloging will no longer be something done by assistant editors. These robots will eventually do it faster and more accurately than a human can. Instead, our jobs will rely our ability to make an audience feel something, and how we do it with our cutting will be paramount.

Someday soon, a computer may learn how to edit convincingly. It will do this through analyzing algorithms and numbers. But something no computer will be able to do is actually feel emotions as it edits. And as much as we program plot and character arcs, this component of storytelling is lost in a world made only of ones and zeros. 

Human emotion is what connects us to each other. Our ability to feel injustice, love, pain, joy, abuse, reward, jealousy, pleasure, greed, all our emotions are deeply related to how we perceive and interact with everything around us. It’s why we will say clouds have faces, or give personalities to inanimate objects, or accuse the magnetic keycards of our hotels of hating us. It is impossible to tell a story without emotional tension. The robots will never completely understand how one human’s emotions connect, amplify, and change when they interact with other human’s emotions. And that is where we, the human editors, will stand as curators and guardians of the sacred act of storytelling.

The more the robots take over the grunt work, the more we can focus on re-embracing and sharing the knowledge of visual storytelling. If we learn to use the power of the robots, we will find ourselves in a better place to craft better edits. Instead of relying on our tech to do all the work, we can use it to free up production time so we can tell better stories. And we will have more time to pass on the critical and valuable knowledge of how to shape good stories to the next generation of culture-makers.

It’s easy to feel that the robots will make us obsolete. But I believe there’s an exciting future out there waiting for us. It’s a world full of feeling and of emotion. It’s where good stories are shared, and we get to shape the way our audience interacts with those stories. And where the robots are our helpers, not our enemy.

Prepare for the future. Learn all you can about storytelling, about feeling, and about human emotion. Make those killer cuts that not only look good, but deliver a punch in the gut. Make your audiences laugh, cry, and enjoy the stories you’re telling them. Be such a damn good storyteller that the robots will be scratching their circuits, wondering how you did that. Don’t let the robot invasion sweep you under the tide of mediocrity. 

Rise and take your place, my fellow editors. We have a great future ahead of us. And it’s wonderful.