Evolution of the below-the-line training cycle, culture of tradespeople vs culture of technicians

The older cusp of the game generation (now in their mid-thirties) have entered their productive years as journeyman technicians and content creators. These technicians and artists came up in an infrastructure and training cycle married to film but sleeping with video; an infrastructure and training-cycle that is infiltrated more and more by electronic acquisition and digital post. The phenomena is the result of the explosion of world wide cable and a desire to stem the rising cost of production.

I remember having the opportunity to compare formative experiences with Dedo Weingert, inventor of the dedo light, at a lighting expo one rainy night in New York City five years ago. One of the biggest differences between my own and Mr. Weingert's apprenticeship is that he saw film dailies for almost everything he lit.

How did I get to spend so much time talking with Mr. Weingert?  No one showed up to the event, except myself and a few other below-the-line technicians.  In fact, one executive at a prominent rental house in New York City recently mentioned to me that attendance at seminars has declined over the last few years. This phenomena, according to some elder technicians, is evidence of our arrogance as the younger generation. The generational gap, however, is more likely the result of the globalization of the media and entertainment sector; the advance of digital post and acquisition technologies; and ultimately the evolution of below-the-line training cycle.

Today digital cinematography and end-to-end digital workflows have reached critical mass. The culture war I came up in, between film and "video", has given way to hybrid projects with newer formats that incorporate the best of both worlds. The change is liberating because digital workflows feel more natural to my sensibilities, even while I have to admit they complicate the creative process with a multitude of technical variables that influence image quality.

In his aptly titled book, The Rise of the Creative Class, urban planner Richard Florida identifies the emergence of a new economic and social class of "thirty eight million Americans roughly thirty percent of the entire U.S. workforce, whose creativity is the driving force of our nation's economic growth." [1]

The key difference between the creative class and other classes, according to Florida, lies in what they are primarily paid to do. Those in the working and service classes are paid to execute according to plan, while the main economic function of the core of the creative class (which includes people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, entertainment, and the media) is to create new ideas, new technology and/or new creative content - in other words intellectual property. [2]

In addition, around this creative core, exists a broader group of creative professionals in business, finance, law, health care and other related fields, who engage in "complex problem solving" that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital. [3]

The creative class in the United States today is larger than the traditional working class. The service class, totaling fifty five million workers or forty three percent of the U.S. workforce, is the largest of all. The growth of the service class, according to Florida, is in large measure a response to the demands of the 'creative economy'. "Members of the Creative Class, because they are well compensated and work long and unpredictable hours," writes Florida, "require a growing pool of low-end service workers to take care of them and do their chores." [4]

I have outlined the work of others as it relates to the creative economy elsewhere on this site. Here is a quick summary of three of its important aspects:

The 'creative economy' has substantial scope. 

John Howkins categorizes the creative economy to include fifteen creative sectors - such as research and development, software, design, and content industries like film, music, and video games - that produce intellectual property in the form of patents, copyrights, trademarks and proprietary designs. The annual global revenue for Howkin's fifteen identified sectors was $2.24 trillion in 1999. The U.S. share represents forty percent of the market with revenue totaling $960 billion. The U.S. share also accounts for more than forty percent of research and development, forty percent of television and radio, and thirty percent of film. Howkins calculates that core copyright industries will be worth $6.1 trillion internationally in fifteen years. U.S. dominance in these segments - more than productivity improvements related to new technology and new manufacturing methods - is responsible for much of the nation's global economic competitiveness since the nineteen-eighties. [5]

Creativity is Mainstream.

More Americans work in art, entertainment, and design, than as lawyers, accountants, and auditors. [6]  In the United States, professional artists, writers, and performers have increased three hundred and twenty-five percent from 525,000 in 1950 to 2.5 million in 1999. [7]  Graphic designers outnumber chemical engineers by four to one, and more Americans are directly employed in film production than in the steel industry. [8]

Creativity is Expensive and Time Consuming.

The production of commodities in the creative industries, which include film and television, is said to suffer from "Baumol's disease". Costs in these sectors tend to climb faster than the rate of inflation, chiefly because creativity is dependent on highly specialized human capital and inherently labor intensive. Labor costs in the creative sectors also tend to rise more rapidly than others do.

In many respects, the demands of the creative economy have flattened the business model of most major industry sectors, requiring firms to capitalize on the greater efficiency gained by the creative factory and subcontract manufacturing systems(translate that as outsourcing).

Stephen Barley has noted in The New World of Work that the entire economy has moved towards a more horizontal division of labor and hyper-specialization among firms.[9] "The digital business environment that Kodak is transitioning to is more horizontal in construct" says Antonio Perez, CEO and President of Kodak: "It requires alliances, partnering and, to a certain degree, acquisitions to move quickly into new markets." [10]

A natural outcome of this development is a "horizontal labor market" with people tending to move laterally instead of vertically. "Climbing the corporate ladder is not much of an option," writes Florida: "Perhaps because there isn't as much of a ladder in many of today's leaner, flatter firms - and it is liable to shift or vanish before you're halfway up." [11]

In fact, Americans now change jobs on average every 3.5 years.  This figure has been declining steadily for every age group. Workers in their twenties switch jobs on average every 1.1 years. [12]  The phenomenon is also coupled with a tendency towards hyper-specialization among individual occupations, just as it is among firms. Those "in authority no longer comprehend the work of their subordinates," notes Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Friedman in The Horizontal Society, because occupations themselves have evolved into "clusters of domain-specific knowledge." [13]

The game generation (the older cusp of which are now in their mid-thirties) have come of age professionally and technically in the midst of this evolving labor market, which is evermore dependent on them to act as the "work horses" in their respective creative sectors. "In most Creative Class occupations," writes Richard Florida, "people manage their careers by 'front-loading' - working excruciatingly long and hard at the outset of their professional lives in the hopes it will pay off in greater income, marketability and mobility later." [14]

Moreover, people today not only tend to identify themselves with their occupation or profession instead of the company that they work for, but they also bear more of the responsibility and risks for their careers. This means individual workers invest more of their own time and resources into education and skill acquisition now than any other time before.

The trend is particularly acute among new media professionals, who, according to Rosemary Batt and Susan Christopherson of Cornell University, spend an additional 13.5-hours per week obtaining new skills - all of it unpaid. This has become an individual responsibility, "both because the interactive nature of computer tools allows new media workers to learn new skills at their own pace and within their own learning style, and because formal learning programs have not kept pace with skill needs in this fast-changing industry." [15]

In fact, digital technology has transformed 'economies of training', so that "the training cycle is now longer than the life cycle of the devices in use," says Bill Drury Senior Consultant formerly with IBM EMEA, when I interviewed him this year: "That means companies cannot afford these long training cycles any longer."

In the new labor market, it no longer pays for companies to invest significantly in developing their people's skills and capabilities.

Consequently, the game generation has different organizational values and attitudes about professional roles than their predecessors. In their groundbreaking book, Got Game, John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade argue that entertainment software has shaped the organizational ethos of gamers and profoundly influenced how they approach their work - well beyond the scope of those influential meta-forces mentioned above like hyper-specialization and the flattening of the labor market, both of which have emerged from the creative economy and the technological convergence of digital technology and business.

One first has to comprehend the profound penetration of entertainment software usage among individuals under the age of thirty-five. This demographic has spent "billions of dollars, and billions of hours, in the virtual world[s] created by these machines," and despite the prevailing boomer amnesia on the subject, games, like the television to boomers, "are a universally shared, technology powered experience." [16]

According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average age of a gamer is thirty-three; and despite assumptions to the contrary, thirty-eight percent of gamers are women:

Adult gamers have been playing an average of twelve years. Among most frequent gamers, adult males average ten years for game playing, females for eight years...The average adult woman plays games 7.4 hours per week. The average adult man plays 7.6 hours per week. Though males spend more time playing than do females, the gender/time gap has narrowed significantly." [17]

Beck and Wade also add: "One survey found ninty-two percent of children ages two to seventeen in the United States have regular access to video games, and eighty percent of U.S. households with children have a computer...And games, unlike computer and Internet usage, are not limited to the socioeconomic elite." [18]

Video games are big business. According to Beck and Wade, "Today's game market is huge because nearly every kid is involved." [19]

Electronic Arts, now part of Standard & Poor's 500 Index, earned $2.5 billion in 2003 and more than the combined revenue of the year's ten top-grossing movies. [20]  Nintendo's Mario series of video games has earned more than $7 billion over its lifetime - double the money earned by all the Star Wars movies. [21]  Sony's Everquest, with 650,000 registered players who stay online an average of twenty-two hours a week, at thirteen dollars a month, that adds up to about $101 million a year in revenue from subscription fees alone." [22]

Secondly, according to Beck and Wade, video games are powerful training tools:

The game's complex, nearly cinematic images and multilayered sound tracks give players the feeling of total immersion. After all, the game responds almost instantly to any action the player imagines, and other players (whether live or computer generated) respond to them in real time.  Even the environment shapes itself to match the player's skill level.  The game generation grew up in this world of immersion and instant response.  Naturally the exposure has an effects.  What gamers learned, among other things, was how to manipulate electronic information...Compared to the activities that pregamers grew up with, for instance, the game generation lives in a world that is incredibly responsive.  And that's not real life...Yet it is perfect for training. (Even the U.S. military-a culture that knows a few things about training - recognizes this.  As far back as the 1980s, on Atari technology, the Army used a modified commercial game, Battlezone, for armored gunnery training.  A variant of Doom has been used to train Marines in urban combat.)...The game world is a giant, accidentally created machine for giving kids an enormous number and range of choices and then immediately showing them the consequences of what they choose.[23]

This responsiveness has made gamers more focused on value-added than their predecessors. According to Beck and Wade, "All that experience with video games has made these people passionate about added value. You have to look closely, at first, to see that passion.  Initially, what you see is the value gamers put on skill...They understand that their only real job security comes from their capabilities and continued productivity.[24]

A corollary of the authors' argument is that the game generation's propensity for role-playing is partly responsible for the dot com era, just as much as the flawed business models of the firms headed by these 'Sim City' CEOs were responsible for the bubble; for, the game generation believes that as long as they have the right tools, they will can do and be anything. Beck and Wade write:

The biggest danger, however, is that the game generation's passion for adding value can be so easily misconstrued. When we first started reviewing these survey results, we found the word arrogant coming readily to mind. The tendency of twenty-something gamers to describe themselves as experts for example, can certainly seem that way. But when we connect their focus on skill and expertise with their desire for professional respect and their willingness to be paid only for results, we sense a different pattern.[25]

No industry sector is immune to these developments (including film production and post). Although, the effects are more apparent in the latter. I would argue that the breakdown of the traditional apprenticeship system in media and entertainment content production is a result of this trend toward a more horizontal labor market, the emerging creative economy and the ethos of the game generation.

Granted, film production has always relied on "domain specific knowledge" between departments. Even intra-departmentally, the division of labor is quite specific, although customarily cumulative in breadth. This division of labor is part of the traditional apprenticeship system. "It's always been an industry of apprenticeship," says Bob Harvey, Senior Vice President of worldwide sales at Panavision when I interviewed him this year, "and people grow up from being loaders all the way up in the camera department, and I think all the departments. I don't know if that's going to continue and that's too bad."

"Many of the individuals who participate in an entertainment production would refer to their skills as a trade, notes the 2001 Department of Commerce Report on Runaway Production, "Traditionally, practitioners often developed their trades in a union environment, which facilitate an individual's development of the necessary learned skills through apprenticeships and on-the-job experience." [26]

The dramatic increase in worldwide demand for cable content coupled with the high production cost inherent in the creative industries has lead to an amplified need for cost-effective digital production, a growing trend towards production outsourcing (translate runaway production) and a concurrent rise of non union production over the last fifteen years. These are transforming the below-the-line labor market from a culture of tradesmen to a culture of technicians.

As I already noted this phenomenon is keener in postproduction, where transition to digital technology has been more apparent and complete. "The changes in the tools that are utilized to perform these post-production functions," notes the 2001 Department of Commerce Report on Runaway Production, "have presented opportunities for new post-production markets to appear with newly trained workforces that have bypassed the historical 'apprenticeship' programs that have existed in Hollywood for many years. This new workforce consists of individuals who have attended technical schools or government-sponsored programs that provide the required training to operate the new generation of equipment."[27]

Just as the flattening labor market of corporate America has seen a trend towards self-education, so too has the labor market of below-the-line technicians. Part of this is a result of the increase in electronic acquisition and the advance of digital acquisition and post technologies. "In the past, when you got into the film industry, very often it was from art school, or you went to a school and studied photography or film. You seldom went to liberal arts schools and got into the industry. Some did, but not very many. I think that changed with your generation," said Director of Photography, Michael Falasco to me last year: "Everyone absolutely believes that they can take Avid courses and Final Cut Pro and come out and be editors."

According to the 2001 Department of Commerce Report on Runaway production, historically

[T]he learning curve associated with developing the skills to become an on-line editor was substantial. As such an editor was required to understand and work with up to 20 different types of manufacturing equipment, all with different user interfaces working in conjunction with one another to create the desired effect. Today, computers utilize common user interfaces and software tools to combine many of these tasks. This has greatly reduced the learning curves associated with becoming an on-line editor. This reduced learning curve, when combined with formal training through government-sponsored school programs, has allowed many foreign production centers to be able to gain the necessary expertise to staff productions with local workers at a substantially lower cost than having U.S.-based workers travel to the foreign production site. This has increased their ability to attract foreign production, and these trends are continuing today. [28]

Ripples are also felt in the world of production, especially in the cable TV market, where the demand for low-cost content is insatiable. Lower cost digital cameras and editing equipment have made production cheaper and lowered the barriers to market entry. This lowers capital equipment costs and the labor requirements for low-end production. For television broadcasters, the lowering of production costs has made it more economically feasible to produce docu-reality content aimed at narrower audience segments.

In terms of high-end digital cinematography, one of the obstacles towards seeding the future is access to the tools (in other words, getting one's hands on the equipment). "They need access to be able to learn how to use it and how to get the best from it," says Steve Shaw of Digital Praxis, "The most difficult part at the moment is getting hands on experience [with high-end digital acquisition]."

Another aspect of the new training cycle is simply the lack of uniformity amongst the large chip cameras and the increase in variables that affect image quality along the digital supply chain. "When I was coming up," remarks Director of Photography Michael Falasco:

[C]ertainly everyone knew original negative because we were production people. If you worked in a duplicating house or an optical house, then all of a sudden you had to learn inter-negative, and you had to learn CRI, and you had to learn inter-positive, and black and white pan masters, and every one of them had different gammas, everyone of them had different curves, so that always seemed like a lot...but you only had three or four stocks to choose from, you had three or four duplicating stocks, and then a handful of print stocks so you really could learn all you needed to know about them. Now at any given time a shooter has the choice of a dozen different stocks to work with and the same in duplication, and even now when your making a digital intermediate you have 2K, 4K, and 6K shortly...I just read an article by a European DP and he was talking about why he liked the Master Primes, and he quoted three or four very aesthetic things. There was no specific technical stuff that he quoted about any of them. What that said to me, 'If you took four of these, if you took the Master Primes the Optimo, the DigiPrimes, and the E Series and you shot on any given stock which is so good these days, and you transferred on a Spirit or you transferred on a C-Reality or you laser scanned like Amelie and that was at 2K and now they have 4K and 6K; it's almost impossible, it's imperceptible to say this particular thing is result of the contrast of the DigiPrimes when there are so many other high tech variables that happened within the work flow.'

Beginning with my generation of film technician, access to viewing film dailies for the apprentice technician decreased in inverse proportion to the increase in electronic acquisition. This fact alone functions as a hole in the traditional film training infrastructure. Certainly one of the biggest misunderstandings about large chip cameras is the fact that one lights them like motion picture film. That requires the expertise of a skilled lighting technician. In most respects the skill sets are transferable. Moreover, people often forget that lighting for motion picture is not merely about exposure, but also an important part of storytelling.

Beyond the changing nature of content brought on by new media, there is evidence of an evolving aesthetic, arising from the introduction of lower-cost digital acquisition and post technologies and the evolving ethos of the game generation in relation to these tools. That fact alone will have a continuing effect on the nature of content and the training cycle of below-the-line technicians: As Mark Chiolis, Senior Marketing Manager of Thomson Grass Valley's Strategic Marketing and Business Development Group, remarked in an interview I conducted with him earlier this year, "Today there are a number of thought provoking questions that are being asked. What happens when there is a true RGB 4k (there isn't one today) sensor that rivals, if not exceeds, that of today's film stock? One of the arguments for film is that people like the "look" which includes the grain and movement through the gate. What happens when the "game-boy" generation takes over? Having grown up with "video" is this the "look" they want to see? Will they have a different set of standards to compare to?"



[1] Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York: Basic Books, 2002) ix and 74.
[2] ibid, 69.
[3] ibid, ix.
[4] ibid, 9 and 71.
[5] John Howkins, The Creative Economy: How People Make Money from Ideas (New York: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 2001) 116.
[6] Occupational Employment Statistics Program, Bureau of Labor Statistics, "2002 National Cross-Industry Estimates of Employment and Mean Annual Wage for SOC Major Occupational Groups". Online. Available: http://www.bls.gov/oes/home.htm
[7] U.S. Census Bureau, "Historical Statistics of the United States and the 2000 Statistical Abstract". 15 December 2005.
[8] Bureau of Economic Affairs, U.S. Department of Commerce, 5. Online. Available:
[9] Barley, Stephen R. The New World of Work. London: British North-American Research Committee, 1996.
[10] "The Power of Partnering," Antonio Perez, Chief Executive Officer and President, Eastman Kodak Company, CEATEC Conference, (Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies). Japan, October 4, 2005 Online. Available:
[11] Florida, 113.
[12] 2001 figures are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. http://www.bls.gov
[13]Lawrence M. Friedman, The Horizontal Society, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
[14] Florida, 154.
[15] Batt et al, Net Working: Work Patterns and Workforce Policies for the New Media Industry, (Washington, D.C.: Economic Policy Institute, 2001). See also: Porter Anderson, Scrambling to keep up: New media careerists, CNN.com Online. Available: John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade, Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004) 14.
[17] Entertainment Software Association. Online. Available:
[18] Beck and Wade, 36.
[19] ibid, 8.
[20] David Kushner, The Wrinkled Future of Online Gaming, Wired, June 2004
[21] Zev Borow, The Godfather, Wired, January 2003.
[22] Hiawatha Bray, Justice Has Its Price in the Sim World, Boston Globe, January 14, 2004.
[23]Beck and Wade, 33-35, 76-77.
[24] Beck and Wade, 78-79, 110.
[25] Beck and Wade, 96.
[26] Bureau of Economic Affairs, U.S. Department of Commerce., "The Migration of U.S. Film and Television Production Impact of 'Runaways' on Workers and Small Business in the U.S. Film Industry". Export.gov, Office of Public Affairs, 2001: 74. Online. Available: http://www.ita.doc.gov/media/filmreport.htm
[27] ibid.
[28] ibid.
Alexa O'Brien Alexa O'Brien researches and writes about national security. Her work has been published in VICE News, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Guardian UK, Salon, The Daily Beast, and featured on the BBC, PBS Frontline, On The Media, Democracy Now!, and Public Radio International. In 2013, she was shortlisted for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in the UK and listed in The Verge 50..
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