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Sundance Impressions: Main Street, Friends, and Lizzie

Boarding my flight from LA, I knew I was in for an interesting trip when half the people around me were already wearing snow boots and hats. It was a chilly morning by Southern California standards, but my sweaty self was regretting even wearing a long sleeved shirt. (I really enjoy visiting cold places because I can walk outside and be comfortable. But I obviously don’t like living in them.)

Inside my press credentials, I was surprised and pleased to see a number for a hotline the festival created with the Utah Attorney General’s Office to report harassment, sexism, abuse, and discrimination. I hope other event organizers are taking notice (hello, NAB Show) because this is an obvious tool that should have been implemented years ago. It’s been an after-thought for so long, and it’s finally at the forefront.

The insert was inside all festival badges.

Wandering Main Street involved spotting actors I know whose names are on the tip of my tongue, people I worked with on projects in the past, and people I’ll probably work with in the future. And talking a lot about the threat of snow.

Adobe’s “Art of the Edit” panel this afternoon featured three Premiere-using editors discussing their craft and how it has and hasn’t changed. It’s striking to me how the number of self-taught, never-really-got-training editors are beginning to really take hold and outnumber the old guard. This is in large part thanks to accessible software like Premiere and After Effects. I think it won’t be terribly long before we have entire panels of established, experienced editors who don’t have a film-related anecdote. (I also think this is just fine.)

Adobe's panel on the art of the editor.

At the premiere of Lizzie I got my first taste of the Sundance screening experience: the ticket holder line, the sad glances from the waitlist line, and the buzz in the theater as a fresh, new movie begins. Lizzie is a psychological thriller based on the story of Lizzie Borden and the axe murder of the Borden family, directed by Craig William Macneill and edited by Abbi Jutkowitz, starring Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart. Sevigny and Stewart are definitely at their best in the film with great characters and occasionally sharp dialogue, which is quiet, tense, and slow to build. But when it builds, it gets downright scary. It’s not surprising to add that Lizzie is pretty violent, and as I was thinking about my take on the film, I wondered if seeing a woman involved in this level of carnage (in a non-pulpy sense) was unconsciously affecting my opinion. It’s going to take a while before I really have a clear opinion, but I do know this: Lizzie ended up being a challenging and timely depiction of female rage.

The cast and crew of Lizzie in a Q&A after the screening.

Aside from the bustle of Main Street and the thrill of seeing new films, it’s also worth mentioning that just getting away and being around friendly faces — particularly those in our shared condo, which is full of television and film editors — has been appreciated and necessary. Three of us took a break from the Sundance scene this evening and made dinner at home, sharing olives and tapenade and red wine next to the fire. I love the theme of the sharing of stories at the festival, especially when they’re our own.

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Dinner with friends.

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 20, 2018 at 7:49:44 am Sundance film festival, post production, film, television

Being a Post PA on a Sundance Indie Feature

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.


A lot of assumptions are made about post production assistants, or "post PAs": that they simply fetch lunch, sort M&Ms by color, or other "small" tasks dolled out at the whim of a producer. But Briana Kay Stodden's career so far has been anything but minor. After jumping from rural Illinois to New York City, she has served as post PA on some of the most talked-about shows and movies of 2017 and 2018: Oscar contenderMudbound, Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, Golden Globe winner The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel -- and now making its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this week, Private Life directed by Tamara Jenkins.

Briana graduated from Southern Illinois University with a BA in Cinema Studies and spent her college years working in news. Upon graduation, her partner Eric was offered a job at Light Iron in New York. They moved together, without so much as a quick visit to NYC before the relocation. "There was a lot of uncertainty in those first few months and being unemployed was scary for me but I had a few projects I did from home that kept my bills paid."

Briana Kay Stodden

Those side hustles involved producing an educational video series about working in post for the City of New York and mixing short films from her home studio: key aspects of her success as a PA in the competitive post production industry of New York. "I'm so grateful for my time as a Post PA because it helped me understand all of the different jobs available in post. Because of this, I was able to learn about myself and what I like and don't like. When I started my first Post PA job I was CERTAIN I wanted to be an editor -- but through my side projects, I discovered post sound is what really makes me want to get out bed in the morning.

Briana is moving up and out of the post PA role and into a 2nd assistant editor role at a documentary company where she hopes to return to her journalistic roots. But before she goes, she's got some great insight about the role of the post PA: how to succeed, how to be a good person, and how to think of yourself as anything but small.

Private Life, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Creative COW: How did you get into your first post PA job?

Briana Stodden: When I moved to New York, all of my previous work experience had been in news but I was eager to work in film. Finding a job here was extremely difficult at first because I was applying for post jobs but I didn't understand why I wasn't getting any callbacks. I had almost completely given up on trying to get a job in post and I started to look for jobs in news. 

Then one night, Eric came home and said an editor at Light Iron was needing some help organizing her edit room. I thought it would be a fun project to get me out of the apartment which was still full of unpacked boxes. Plus, I needed to get away from an inbox that continued to taunt me with no job offers. Little did I know, the editor turned out to be the amazing Susan E. Morse and what started out as a couple of weeks worth of helping her to set up her edit room turned in to my first official Post PA job. 

How do you continue to find jobs?

All of my Post PA jobs since have come by recommendations from assistant editors or post supervisors that I have worked with on various films. At first, I didn't know many people in the post industry but going to post gatherings such as those hosted by the Blue Collar Post Collective (BCPC) really helped me make friends and learn more about how the industry works. Some days, I still can't believe that this small-town Midwesterner has worked on shows like, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel with director Amy Sherman-Palladino or Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It.

However, working as a Post PA on Private Life was one of the most fun and educational environments I've experienced in the industry thus far. I had already worked with the editor Brian A. Kates on the pilot for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel so I had an idea of his workflow.

However, what I really enjoyed observing were the interactions between him and the director Tamara Jenkins. He also edited her previous film The Savages so from day one of watching them work, I was seeing two old friends collaborate to tell a beautiful story and it was everything you imagine filmmaking should be. No matter how difficult or challenging the workday might have become, it was always a good day because I was working with good and kind people and that is what really matters. 

Director Tamara Jenkins, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

What's a typical day for a post PA like? How can someone shine as a great PA?

It seems a lot of people think Post PAs just order lunch -- and on some days I admit ordering the lunch was so time-consuming it seemed that was all I got done that day. However, the Post PA's job is much more than that if you are willing to learn and do the work. 

If you get the chance to start a Post PA job while the film is still in production, you might get to help the assistant editor set up the editing room. I've found it really helps to get to know the post facility staff in the building where you work so can reach out to them when you have questions. I also like to walk around the neighborhood and learn where some great lunch, coffee, and drugstore options are so I can suggest them when they are needed. And I will already have some takeout menus collected. 

Additionally, if your assistant editor requires you to fill out the post crew's time cards or summarize the petty cash expenses throughout the job, it helps to get to know the production's accounting department. I've learned every film does things a little differently, so you can't assume that the paperwork procedures from one job to the next will be the same. The accountants love it when you ask questions early on and avoid simple mistakes later. (You should also show that you appreciate them by writing legibly on all paperwork and by bringing them donuts.) 

While the film is still shooting there is a lot of paperwork that has to be organized such as camera reports, editor's logs, and lined script pages. Every editor and assistant editor will have a different way of doing things so it's important to ask questions and revise your workflow as they require. 

During the director's cut, things start to slow down a little, but this is a great time to observe and learn from your assistant editor if they are able to show you some of their workflow. However, be respectful of their time and make sure you aren't distracting them while they are providing support for the editor or the director. 

Between paperwork, running errands, or ordering lunch, I found it was a good time to practice tutorials online or read up on developments in the industry. It's easy to forget sometimes but these film jobs usually only last about 6-8 months, and as a Post PA you have access to incredibly smart and talented people. Depending on the editing room setup, you might only get small windows of opportunity to ask questions or interact with the editor, assistant editor, or the director, so you want to be knowledgeable and prepared to take advantage of those moments. 

For example, I like to make lists of questions to ask should I get the chance. Those questions could be about something technical or something like, "On this film so far, what edit are you most proud of?" These kinds of questions open up a dialogue, and you will learn more from the stories around the lunch table than you ever will from surfing your Facebook or watching YouTube videos, so always be ready. You might not get all of your questions answered and that is okay, just stay engaged.

Are there any odd tasks you've had to do as a PA?

Every job is unique and every post crew has different needs. It's important to find joy in any task even if it seems small and unimportant. Overall, the Post PA is there to help keep the editing room running smoothly and do whatever is needed to keep the editor, director, and the AE focusing on the film's creation. 

This could mean running to the store for cold medicine, special ordering Red Vines to make the director feel more at home, or assisting the post supervisor. Sometimes this extra effort seems thankless, but it will be noticed by the people who are watching and those are often the people who will ask you to do more work with them in the future. 

Did any of these out of the ordinary tasks come into play during Private Life?

I'm really proud of my work on Private Life but I felt especially useful to the director during one of the film's early screenings. Before the film was locked, Tamara expressed how helpful it would be if we could record the laughter in the theater during the screening to know if certain moments in the film were getting the reactions that she had intended. Thanks to my interest in sound mixing and to my previous work on personal film projects, I had my own field recording kit. Not only was I able to record the laughter from the screening, but I also captured the Q&A afterward and she was able to reference it as she finished the film.

What kind of challenges have you had to overcome as a PA?

An interesting challenge I had to overcome as a PA was learning how to read the room. Every job is different, and when tensions are high and deadlines are approaching it's hard to know how you can be useful. Your assistant editor or post supervisor can be your best allies during these moments, and it is best to ask what is expected of you if you are not sure. It might be the most helpful thing to just stand back, observe, and be ready when you are called upon.

What do you think are some of the most important assets a PA has?

In my opinion, being organized, dependable, and enthusiastic about your work are requirements for all jobs. But the most important asset for a PA is a great personality. In post, you have to work in small, cluttered offices for several hours a day. It's important for the editing room atmosphere to stay positive and kind. 

You and everyone around you are working hard, and sometimes you may want to vent your frustrations but resist that feeling if you can. Remember that talking negatively about someone might feel like friendship and trust-building, but you can't make a real connection that way. Your number one goal as a PA should be to leave a lasting, positive, and trustworthy impression on your co-workers. Besides, they will be the ones you run in to at all the post holiday gatherings.

What's some advice you have for people who are maybe about to get their first post PA gig?

Don't give up. When I go to post gatherings like the BCPC meet-ups, I often meet people who were just like me and trying desperately to get a job in the editing room but can't seem to get their foot in the door. 

What helped me finally break through this barrier was an overhaul on my résumé. When I got out of college I had what I thought was a perfect résumé: organized, easy to read, and full of all the editing related jobs that I had done. 

However, a wonderful AE took the time to show me ways to improve my résumé and showcase the duties specific to what a Post PA is required to do. It's a good idea to highlight your future career goals in a cover letter, but the people who are doing the hiring want to know that YOU know what your role is and that you will be focused on supporting the editing room without doing any actual editing. And don't worry, you will get your moment to shine and showcase your other skills after the job has started.  

Briana's home workspace.

What is the path upward in post production for a PA, and how can other people in the cutting room help PAs with that ascension?

Two words... Side. Hustle. The post industry is a little broken right now in that there aren't very many opportunities in the editing room for Post PAs to get actual editing experience which is needed to further their careers. All of my actual editing, AE, and audio experience have come from small non-union jobs that I've picked up in addition to working as a Post PA. These opportunities have come from other AEs with whom I've expressed my desire to learn, and they have graciously let me help out on their side hustles and gigs. While you are building your reputation and skills, focus on what you can do for other people who have more experience. Don't come to them with an attitude of "What can you teach me?" but rather "How can I help you?" This will make all the difference.

Two more words... Speak. Up. On Private Life we were all at lunch one day and the director asked me what my career goals were. I admitted that I was grateful for what I had learned working in edit rooms, but I have discovered I am more interested in post sound. She and Brian (the editor) got excited hearing this and then offered to let me come and sit in at the mix stage. It was incredible watching the film come together like that. In between the mixing sessions I was able to ask the sound engineers questions about their workflow which I have now applied to my home mixing sessions. I am so lucky that Tamara and Brian are the type of people who would invest in my interests like that. I will never forget their kindness. 

As you move on from your time spent as a PA, what final advice do you leave behind for future PAs?

If there is one thing I would like other aspiring Post PAs to know it's what you do matters. I am lucky to have worked with some incredibly kind and generous people. But some days it can be overwhelming when your job entails minding all the little things and it seems everyone around you is doing all the big things. 

Some people may knowingly or unknowingly make you feel small while you are doing the small things but remember you are enough. You deserve to be in the room. 

You won't learn everything you need to know from one job. Moving up in the industry will take time and this is YOUR time to determine what path you want to take. Choosing a different path than the one you thought you wanted does not mean you have failed, it's just part of the process. 

While I was interviewing foley artist Joanna Fang for the post educational video series that I produced last year, she inspired me by saying, "This industry asks you to be very good at a specific task. So go out there, find that task and don't be afraid if you fail." That's what I am striving to do. To summarize: I want to encourage you to be kind, work hard, and keep going.

Follow Me at Sundance Film Festival this Week

Tomorrow morning, I'm jetting off from sunny Burbank to snowy (frigid, icy, frozen) Park City, Utah to cover the 2018 Sundance Film Festival here on the COW. I've got furry snow boots, long underwear, and a handful of tickets that cover everything from the fest's most anticipated to most experimental offerings. And I've got my own angle.

Before the lush celebrity gift suites, the sold-out Q&A sessions, and the long lines of frozen but eager cinephiles trying to grab the hottest ticket in Park City, a movie was made -- and it was hard work. And behind the producers and directors and actors who led the charge, a "below-the-line" crew of anywhere from tens to hundreds of craftspeople worked to bring filmmakers' visions to life. They're the post production engineers, the editors, the camera operators, or the composers whose names are in the credits but not the numerous story pitches to Sundance press outlets like the COW. Union or non-union, aspiring or veteran, these individuals spent weeks of their life behind the scenes dedicated to telling a story. And in my 2018 COW Sundance Film Festival coverage, I'm telling their stories.

I'll be talking to directors and producers and writers of course, and I'll tell you all about the films I see and the scene that's set in Park City, but my goal is to bring you insight into the daily lives of the crew -- the ones with the 10 or 12 hour days, the ones who worked their way up through unpaid "for exposure" promises, and the ones who unwaveringly service someone else's story.

In our current political climate, in Hollywood and everywhere else, learning more about each other and respecting one another's work and life has never been more important. The #MeToo movement has opened a dialogue we've never been able to have with each other before. Time's Up, the legal defense fund set up support those who have experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace, is making the right moves toward keeping that dialogue happening and protecting those who want to have it.

But we can't forget our below-the-line crew in these conversations. For every actress who has been assaulted by a filthy producer, or every director coerced by a power-hungry executive, there are thousands of female crew members in production and post who are caught in a nuanced power struggle every day. Many of them are harassed, assaulted, and abused too. Most of them can't or won't ever speak up because they remain in a position where they would lose work, maybe forever.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

#MeToo is going to shape a lot of Sundance coverage this year because it's going to change how we view the films in the festival. That will be challenging for some people who have old traumas reawakened, and offensive to others who view equality as a loss of power. But regardless of your opinion or your past experience, something has shifted and its affecting Hollywood -- and the best thing we can do is try talk to each other. A lot.

In the coming days I've got conversations to share with operators, assistants, producers, editors and many more. I'll be sharing what I see here on this blog, as well as shorter, quicker takes on my Twitter and Instagram feeds. Film and television editor Meaghan Wilbur will also be on the ground in Park City serving as a contributing editor and tweeting some #hottakes from the theaters.

Back to packing now -- is four scarves enough? I'm bringing four.

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jan 18, 2018 at 11:27:47 pm Sundance film festival, post production, film, television

The Myths of Setting Goals in Post Production

If you work in post production, you’ve probably described yourself a number of ways. Curious. Goal-oriented. Driven. Ambitious. And as 2018 approaches, the urge to revisit your goals as a professional naturally rises. There’s not much to back up the usefulness of the idea of New Years resolutions, but we do them anyway. Humans love patterns and milestones because we’re weird and adorable, and my experience in post has led me to believe that my peers are even more gung-ho about that stuff. We make lists and charts and binders and we live for it.

For your career potential and your generally happiness as a person (or at least the parts linked to work), it’s important to continually check in with yourself. Are you growing in the ways you want? Are you heading in the right direction? Are you generally satisfied with your work life? If not, how can you reposition yourself in the coming year to be more closely aligned with what you really want? I think most serious and successful people in our industry have this sentiment ingrained in their head sooner or later: stasis is generally not good because too much is changing. The feeling is that if you aren’t learning, you’re being left behind in some way.

However, lately I’ve stumbled upon a lot of post production professionals who seem to be taking this much more deeply to heart than is useful. Hardly anything in our work life (or our personal life) is so black and white as an “if, then” statement: “if you don’t take that indie project, then you don’t care” — “if you aren’t learning, then you’re not trying” — “if you’re feeling burned out, then you don’t want it badly enough.”

I’ve always been goal-oriented. I love tangible achievement. I love working toward something. I REALLY love making a list and checking things off, especially if they relate to the big picture of life. But like, whoa: when you’re so narrowly focused on Achievement(TM), you could missing valuable experiences or making yourself unnecessarily unhappy. Goals are supposed to guide you toward fulfillment, but not at the expense of your day-to-day happiness and overall wellness. I see high-achieving, goal-oriented young professionals in our industry beginning to burn out far too early

MYTH 1: Every day is wasted if you aren’t learning new things at your current job.

Here’s a scenario from my life. I worked in corporate video for a few years, and I made it a goal to try to incorporate something new into each project I took on. I was the only video person in the company — in the marketing department of the company — so I didn’t have anyone to mentor me. I did a pretty good job at keeping myself engaged. But one summer, business was a little slow and there was less video work to do. Instead of producing and editing, I was creating and stuffing mailers to sell the training DVD I had authored to companies who might need it. I felt a growing anxiety every day: I was wasting away doing menial work instead of plugging away at the next Big Creative Project. I hated that place and hated the work. I felt like a fraud. I felt like my entire summer was wasted.

Your job might not be so drastically unengaging, but you might hate it all the same. The resent that can build as you work away on a project that isn’t creatively challenging you often becomes more of an issue than the lack of creative challenge itself. We all have to accept that not every day, week, or month at a job is going to engage us at the level we want to engage in order to ascend.

It is GOOD to realize your needs. It is GOOD to understand that you want more out of your work life. It is BAD to be miserable every single day about it. And it is BAD to become so anxious and unhappy about your lack of growth that you become unpleasant to yourself and everyone around you.

So I spent like three months doing envelope stuffing work. I was still getting paid the same, and that pay continued to allow me to use some of my nights and weekends on other kinds of creative work which I enjoyed a lot early in my career. It allowed me to spend time positioning myself better, because I needed that time. That position still went on my resume as several years as an editor.

A job is work, a means to an end. You are not defined by your job. Sometimes it’s easy to find a new one, sometimes not. Sometimes you’re in a financial position to leave it, often not. If your job pays you and is not abusing you, then you are objectively okay. Always remember: you are not your job, and you are in control of what happens in your life. Sometimes it’ll take time. Give yourself time.

MYTH 2: Radically redirecting your goals is a sign of being a flake.

I was so dead-set on heading one direction in this industry for so many years that when a newer, better opportunity to shift into something better aligned with who I had become popped up, I rejected it outright. I thought I was self-aware when in reality I was hyper-focused on a ten year plan I created when I was 20 years old. You know what’s great about ten year plans? Like basically nothing. When I created mine in 2007, I had no idea what the end of 2008 was going to bring to the US economy. When I was 15 years old and decided to be an editor, I had no idea that part of that path would include a series of jobs I had little interest in later on, and the work I shifted into didn’t even exist yet.

And don’t take this to mean that having goals, long-term or short-term, is bad. It’s really good. You should always have a goal, and most everyone in the industry does. It helps you pitch yourself to people, and it informs the specific decisions you make about your career today. Go read the blogs about goal-setting (including mine). But don’t be afraid to put it down the garbage disposal when you realize you’re better off heading a different direction.

The great thing about this industry is that it’s so easy to evolve. There are so many new opportunities for technology and storytelling emerging all the time. It’s impossible to know what we’ll be capable of in a year or two. Who would have predicted the rise of OTT video? Or VR? Or the ubiquity of screens through iPads and iPhones? Plus, we learn new things about our industry and ourselves all the time.

Being able to assess and radically redirect your goals as needed is a skill many of us don’t have, because hardly anyone is taught how to evolve as a professional. At least in my experience, previous generations have valued finding a path early and sticking with it for 40 years until retirement. But the reality is that it’s incredibly common (and becoming even more common) to change careers a couple times in your life.

Our industry is so vast that a complete change in direction can (and often does) happen even within its boundaries. This is really cool. Embrace it.

MYTH 3: Staying with one company long-term is bad.

I recently heard from a young woman that she was considering leaving her job because she had simply been there too long, and that seemed like a bad idea to her. She was still being challenged and groomed for promotion, and she liked her workplace, but after a few years she was feeling restless. She was worried she wasn’t “putting herself out there” more, or was missing valuable experiences that come from job-hopping. It was almost like people wouldn’t take her seriously if she had three years at one single facility on her resume.

Over the last decade, our industry (and many industries in general) have shifted toward the “gig economy” where everything is short term, and there’s a lot of it. It seems like this has become so much the norm that young people who do experience more traditional workplaces — ones where they go every day, get promoted, and have ownership in the company itself — are being caught off guard. So much of the conversation among post production professionals also revolves around New York and Los Angeles and film and television, where (in the US at least) the jobs are generally long-term freelance. People are going from project to project, in different kinds of situations with different sorts of teams. The insight and testimonials from people like that are useful and fascinating, but they don’t directly apply to the huge number of other opportunities in post production in those cities and elsewhere.

Staying with one company for the long term? It’s not bad at all if you’re still getting what you want out of your every day life. Sometimes people seek complacency, and sometimes people seek active growth. If what you want is the latter and your company of three years is still offering that to you, you’re in a good situation. (If you’re sick of looking at the same people and you want a change of pace and scenery, I certainly can’t argue with that though.)

MYTH 4: If you aren’t using a large chunk of your free time to further your career, you aren’t serious.

One of the most annoying things that is parroted in our industry is the idea that you need to be actively learning and using all your free time to funnel knowledge and experiences into your career. I bought into this to an extent when I was younger. Although I enjoyed saying “yes” to every possible side gig (paid or not) that came up, there was a nagging part of me that also guilted me into doing it. If I wasn’t cutting some short film, what was I going to be doing? Hanging out with a friend in the hot tub? Watching TV? Going for a run? How does that help my career?

Side gigs and night work are something we all do, and we tend to do more of it earlier in our career. And that’s totally fine. But don’t buy into the idea that you have to attend every single networking event, screening, mixer, and panel in order to grow as a professional. What you really need to do in order to be a successful, long-term post production worker? Learn to say NO. Learn to bring balance to your life whenever possible. And learn that the people around you who are going at it 24/7, seemingly running circles around you? They aren’t more serious than you. They just have different priorities — and to be honest, those priorities will make for a less sustainable future. Working ‘round the clock is unhealthy no matter how much you enjoy the job.

The hours are already long in our industry. When you do have free time, it has a tremendous value. You must assess the best way to use it. Sometimes that will be a night gig. Sometimes that will be laying in bed. Both are valid career choices in moderation.

MYTH 5: If you need to take a break from the industry, you’ve failed.

The post production industry is really hard. There are points in the year that are especially rough. If you’ve had a difficult or slow year, with a lot of extra expenses or decrease in clients, it can be hard to weather the tough times. Early in your career, it can be especially difficult: you don’t make that much money to begin with, so the time you have in between freelance jobs or to look actively for something better is very minimal. And for anyone else regardless of pay or success: burn-out is a real thing that happens to a lot of people and must be actively managed.

Weathering the storms and surviving day-to-day — whether that’s literally making enough money to eat or just being able to be happy enough with work not to let it seep into your personal life — is a difficult and important aspect of our industry. The work can fluctuate in frequency or difficulty, deeply affecting your emotions or your bank account. Your most important priority always needs to be taking care of yourself. For some people that might mean hanging out longer at a gig that isn’t really allowing them to grow, and accepting that as a valid choice. For others, it might be a break entirely from the industry to get financially stable. And for someone else, it could mean going back to school to add new skills or redirect entirely.

“Taking a break” from your career comes in many different forms, and mostly all of them can come across as “giving up” to oneself. But that is rarely the case for anyone, and it’s hardly ever the reality. If you go to grad school for a while or work a desk job or stick around being compacent somewhere, there is no reason you can’t pick your career back up when you feel ready and able to move forward. Too many people in the industry feel they have to move forward endlessly — by choosing a period of self-care that involves pressing the pause button, you are moving forward in your strategic thinking that involves a long-term career.


Look, what I’m trying to say is don’t buy into this idea that you have to be this ruthlessly ambitious ladder climbing insatiable person in order to succeed in post production. If you’re constantly keeping your eyes on some distant, abstract prize, you miss all the little experiences along the way that really make you who you are as a person — as a whole person who isn’t just defined by their work life. It’s incredibly cheesy to say it’s about the journey and not the destination, but fight me, I’m saying it anyway. Don’t let yourself get swept up in the idea you are not “enough” because that means something completely different to everyone. You need time to learn and grow as an individual, and to meet lots of different people. A diversity of experiences in every way will make you a better storyteller or problem-solver.

Take some time to yourself. Think about where you are and where you want to be. Talk to a peer and a mentor to see if you’re making good decisions. Make small, incremental changes if that’s what it takes. Make a huge, sweeping change if that’s what suits you. But don’t spiral into unhappiness because you aren’t “there” yet. You’ll get there. I promise.

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Dec 19, 2017 at 10:35:27 pm

What’s the Deal with that Content-Aware Fill for Video Thing Adobe Showed Us?

Last month at Adobe MAX in Las Vegas, we saw Project Cloak for the first time. The research project and experiment is still in development, and it may or may not ever be in a Creative Cloud product, but it sure was captivating: draw a box, do some Adobe Sensei magic, and poof: that ugly lamp post is just gone. Logo on a t-shirt? GONE! Weirdo in the backgrond of your shot? Yep: EXTREMELY GONE.

If you’ve ever spent hours of your day rotoscoping something to remove it from a shot, you might share the sentiment: I need this. Are we playing God, or are we taking back precious hours of our time? Why not both!

To find out more about the research, technology, and thinking behind it, I talked to Research Engineer Geoffrey Oxholm.

Creative COW: What drove the development of Project Cloak? Was it knowing that people rotoscoped out stuff in a tedious way all the time? Or was it more like “we’ve done this in Photoshop, I wonder if we can do it on a moving image?” Was the genesis more about solving a problem, or more about experimentation?

Geoffrey: The Adobe Research team has strong partnerships (and friendships) with our colleagues on the product teams. We’ve known for ages that “video inpainting” (removing stuff from video) would be hugely impactful to our customers. One of our researchers published the seminal work on this topic as part of his PhD thesis back in 2004. Since then, it has been a problem that the academic community has been working on, but mostly coming up with solutions that have significant barriers to being ready for consumers (limited use-cases, running times, memory constraints). Recently, there have been some breakthroughs in related areas that inspired us to take a closer look.

How long are things like Project Cloak worked on before they get shown at MAX? I’m sure it must vary, but are people working on these things for months, years, or longer?

This problem has been actively researched for over a decade by the wider academic community. While I can’t speak to other Adobe MAX sneaks, the code that’s running behind Cloak was engineered over about 4 months.

Bye, haters.

What more can you tell me about how Project Cloak works under the hood that wasn’t addressed in the MAX presentation?

I can’t dive into a lot of detail, but we call the area you wish to remove the “hole”. The algorithm works by estimating the motion within the hole. We use dense tracking to keep track of what part of the video has seen the hole region either before, or after, the current frame. Using the motion estimation, we essentially shove the pixels through the hole, and record what the frames look like. If there are portions that are not seen in the video, then we fall back on Content-Aware-Fill to guess what the appearance looks like. There are some details around ensuring the appearance looks good across the whole video, but that’s the basic idea. In summary, with Adobe Sensei, Project Cloak uses an advanced algorithm to dramatically accelerate a time-consuming process, delivering results that previously would have required many hours of editing.

Last year there was a bit of backlash and increased interest in Sneaks thanks to VoCo, which was essentially Photoshop for Audio. In this political climate where there’s been a big focus on what’s fake and what’s real. How do you address people that may be concerned about that?

Our Vice President of Creativity, Mark Randall discussed this topic in detail in a blog post following our demo of VoCo last year.

These questions, this dilemma, is part of our legacy as tool builders. We’re deeply inspired by helping real people create amazing new things, works of art, the future, with our tools. Adobe shows projects like Cloak at MAX Sneaks before they’re ready to be out in the world because we welcome the conversations and feedback from the community. As responsible global citizens, we’re committed to thoughtful development of our tools.

As researchers, our life’s work is on magnifying creativity and opening up new avenues for expression. These are real problems that amazing creative people have, and helping them is what motivates us.

And of course: can we please have Cloak in After Effects? Please?

Glad to hear that you’re excited and eager to see Cloak in one of our shipping products.

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Nov 22, 2017 at 2:01:12 am

Sneaking on the Future of Creative Technology at Adobe MAX

Every year at MAX, we get to look into a crystal ball to see what tomorrow’s technology, especially as it relates to Adobe, may hold for us as technologists and creatives. MAX Sneaks are technology demonstrations and experiments that generally make waves beyond the walls of Adobe MAX itself. Like last year, when a form of “Photoshop for audio” called VoCo (which allows you to feed 20 minutes of audio into the software in order to be able to output any NEW dialog from that) was demonstrated — and ended up making interesting waves as a concept in the surge of “fake news” that emerged in 2016.

Since Sneaks are purely tech demos that don’t currently exist in any Adobe software — but may, someday, if demand and research progress align — the possible use cases haven’t been widely explored yet. And that’s part of why Adobe uses MAX as a platform to explore this future tech. This year 11 sneaks were offered up that covered automation of infographics and colorization, a new approach to working with digital color as paint, and content-aware fill for video and much more. I got a chance to take an early look at four of them and talk to the scientists and researchers involved.

Project Lincoln

Lincoln seeks to change the way designers are able to create charts and data visualizations, and if you've ever tried to make an infographic you're throwing a ticker tape parade. The origin of data visualization is Excel for charts, of course: we’ve all dealt with charts and pivot tables, and various other forms of data hell. There are a lot of infographics and charts that are created all the time for web and print and video, but they’re generally difficult and time-consuming unless you want them to be boring — there’s no obvious way to approach designing advanced charts like this because it’s really an advanced combination of programming and graphic design. There are exploratory tools and explanatory tools that exist for this, with just a little bit of cross over and not much more.

You can make this graphic with Lincoln in like 1 minute, wtf.

To tell a bigger story with data than a list of information or simple charts, you need a lot of time. Lincoln removes all that. You can bring in a spreadsheet — for example, of swimmers, their gender and country and the time they took to complete a swim — and Lincoln allows you to create visualizations of that data in a tactile way, binding it to the spreadsheet of information. Between binding information to different parameters and having access to assets that can be easily dropped in and anchored, an infographic emerges in minutes. Like, literally a few minutes for a huge visualization.

And since it’s still merely an experiment, the possible uses and applications are limitless. Interactivity, animations, everything.

Project Scribbler

Project Scribbler

Say you’re an artist and you’ve got an image in black and white you don’t have time to colorize. Maybe a portrait, or even an old photo of a grandparent. In Scribbler, you hit a button and Adobe Sensei will colorize the sketch instantly. To make this work, a neural network was trained to look at faces and people, and learned how to identify people and colorize them correctly, also accounting for different kinds of skin tones. There is some ability for users to choose different colors and make adjustments too.

It’s a really magical experience to hit a single button and see your photos come to life in a very convincing way. Textures can also be applied to the drawing and Scribbler will use those hints to colorize it as well.

Possibly even more useful on a day to day basis, drawings can be colorized instantly too — for sketches of cartoons or proofs of concept for clients. There are many use cases for art directors or illustrators who are creating spec work and want to move through the colorizing portion of their work very quickly, using it as a starting point. For me, I deeply enjoy seeing old photos of people who never had color photography come to life.

Project Cloak

So, you shoot a video on vacation and you get a great shot of your friend or an awesome building, but it’s got some annoying thing in it — a random person standing in the way, or a street lamp blocking the amazing architecture — you know, the worst thing that always happens. You could take a single frame into Photoshop and use Content Aware Fill to remove the offending image frame by frame if you want, but it super sucks when you play it one after another.

What if Content Aware Fill could work for video? Cloak does just that, and it’s nuts. In the Sneaks demo, a polygon was drawn around the object in After Effects. The mask was rendered separately and both the mask and video were input into Cloak as separate assets.

The net result? The offending item is FRICKING GONE. Weirdo people? Gone. Stains on shirts? Gone. Logos, awkward straps, even people who are originally the primary focus of the shot? All gone. Erase everyone and everything from your video. The technology demo literally did just that. You are a god with Cloak.

Playful Palette

When you’re oil painting, you can grab colors and mix them and have them all sitting in front of you in different ways. But digitally, you don’t have the same experience. You can’t blend the colors on a color wheel, or experiment with them any more than an eyedropper allows. Research teams explored these issues with many different artists and found how annoying this is to them.

Playful Palette brings traditional palette experiences to digital. For example, you can start with a skin tone in an oil painting and tap on it to add it to a digital palette dish. Then you can add a few other colors from your color wheel. But then? You can mix them together in different fluid ways — or even un-mix them. Once you’re happy with the mix, you can freeze it, select a color, and start painting. Swatches are created around the dish so you can always go back and grab the color again or adjust it for a new shade. And if you get to a point in your painting where you wish you had used a different color, instead of setting fire to the painting physically and starting over, you can actually adjust that color independently even though it’s been used already.

I'm a big fan of Physicspak.

Other sneaks included Scene Stitch, which remove parts of a scene Content Aware Fill can't properly fill and replaces them with semantically appropriate objects from another library; Physicspak, which fills a space with graphics - like when you need a shape filled with certain types of graphics, it calculates the size and shape of all the filler graphics; Sonicscape, which allows a tactile and visual approach to arranging 360 audio inside 360 video; Sidewinder, which provides depth to 360 video; Quick3D, which searches for 3D models based on crude drawings; Puppetron, which applies machine learning to remixing images to apply styles to facial photographs; and Deepfill, which fills in gaps within incomplete images using synthesized image patches.

You can see videos of all the Sneaks on Adobe's blog.

After Sneaks, time to Bash.

Day 1 at Adobe MAX: Things People Said

This is my first MAX, and I naively looked at the map and my schedule and said "ah, this will be easy. It's like a fraction of the size NAB is, so I won't die!"

MAX starts early, ends late, and now 11,000 steps later I feel I did not emotionally prepare.

But don't let me whining fool you: it was the bomb so far. I've got a couple of cool stories in the works and I'll definitely have some fascinating stuff to share later today after MAX Sneaks -- the session where Adobe shows off new tech in progress/shows us resistance is futile -- but for now, I wanted to tell you the best things people said.

Between Adobe Spark and Dimension offering new tools I didn't even know I needed, and the focus on immersive technology and machine learning through Adobe Sensei and the new VR tools in Premiere and After Effects, a lot of the conversation was focused on how to continually remove the technical barriers between humans and machines.

"Artificial intelligence will evolve and learn to harness the entire creative community, anticipating what you want to do so you an have the freedom to focus on creativity....When you put put art and science to work, magic can happen." -Shantanu Narayen, CEO, Adobe

Because of the increased accessibility to tools, "user expectations have changed....We have a generation that has grown up on mobile devices. We're taking into consideration the expanding needs of design." -- Jamie Myrold, VP of Design, Adobe

Adobe Sensei will "amplify human creativity and intelligence." - Bryan Lamkin, Executive Vice President & General Manager, Digital Media, Adobe

"Is VR dead because AR is big? I hope VR is dead because it’s going to kill me." - Matt Lewis, Practical Magic (he was joking)

"I just started doing yoga and part of that is learning how the mind and body are two different entities and being a person is a collaboration of both. When you’re watching a film, you’re usually also kind of thinking about other things while your body is sitting there. In VR, you’re completely involved as a whole person. Because this is all contained in one environment, it becomes the ultimate teaching tool. What you teach is up to your imagination. From there it’s about making sure those tools are accessible, so you can teach many things to different kinds of people." - Olivia Peace, 2017 Sundance Ignite Fellow

"I want the story to connect with other humans. This is taking it to another level. It’s less about interpretation and more about feeling. We want one human to tell a story to another human with no technical barrier." - Stefano Corazza, Sr Director, Engineering, Adobe

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Oct 19, 2017 at 3:54:50 pm adobe max, vr, ar, immersive

Yes, Adobe CC Video Apps Updated at MAX

[I'm at Adobe MAX this week. You can also follow me on Twitter for more frequent updates and/or breakfast-related observations.]

It might only be Halloween, but Christmas has come early for Premiere, After Effects, and other Adobe Creative Cloud video apps users.

At IBC, Adobe announced its next round of integrated workflows and performance enhancements. This morning at Adobe MAX, a creativity conference in Las Vegas, those updates were released into the wild.

If you’re only recently accepting that Final Cut Pro 7 is probably not going to keep working for you forever — especially considering Apple’s unsurprising recent announcement it won’t be supported in High Sierra — maybe it’s time to look at what Adobe Creative Cloud has to offer because some of the updates will seem a bit familiar. The rest of it – from VR to AI – could hardly have been fathomed the last time FCP7 was updated.

Today’s release includes announcements sprinkled throughout the year, including Motion Graphics templates from After Effects to Premiere, which allow ease of use of graphics packages for lower thirds and bumpers.

Virtual reality is now possible inside Premiere, with editors being able to work while wearing VR head-sets. VR mode in Premiere and VR Comp Editor in After Effects will allow VR producers and editors to take the next step forward in immersive storytelling, scrubbing the timeline through the headset or switching between different formats to make sure it’ll work no matter the platform. Audio editing in VR allows audio to be determined by orientation or position as well.

Character Animator 1.0 is now available, with many changes to its core functions including accurately matching mouth shape thanks to Adobe Sensei, Adobe’s artificial intellifence and machine learning platform. Sensei also drives auto-ducking in Audition, which automatically lowers soundtrack volume during spoken dialog.

“Adobe continues to lead the creative revolution, driving modernization and innovation that will accelerate the creative process across all platforms and devices,” said Bryan Lamkin, executive vice president and general manager, Digital Media at Adobe. “Today, we unveiled a new generation of Creative Cloud, with a wide spectrum of capabilities—from new experience design, 2D animation and 3D rendering apps to an all-new, cloud-based photography service. These tools enable creative professionals and enthusiasts to express themselves and reach their full creative potential anytime, anywhere, on any device.”

And maybe most important for us video nerds: the ability to open multiple projects and share projects with locking, as well as continued support for more formats in the timeline. Team Projects should become a solution for collaborative workflows that many users have been demanding for many months. Keyboard shortcut mapping has also been creatly improved with a visual shortcut editor.

Having multiple projects open means being able to have a more traditional, streamlined workflow: splitting acts up into projects, having multiple episodes available, or just being able to pull from a template project in a tab-based structure.

Project locking allows users to lock projects in order to alert others when a project is currently being edited so other users cannot overwrite edits. Users can assign read-only access to those that need it for viewing purposes only.

Both of those updates will be familiar to Avid and FCP7 users, as many Premiere users have been trying to find workarounds to edit this way for quite a while.

While many of these features have been in beta for a while and have had reviews hitting the internet in the months since, putting them to work in real working environments will be the real test in seeing how Premiere continues to take hold, especially in high level workflows in Hollywood. Premiere has already been hitting LA hard, being the NLE of choice for David Fincher’s “Mindhunter” series, Al Gore’s “An Iconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power”, and the feature film “6 Below” among many others.

There will surely be more for Adobe fans from MAX this week as the creativity conference continues through Friday and includes MAX Sneaks, a session on futurist technology being worked on at Adobe. Follow along online with MAX keynotes:

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Oct 18, 2017 at 2:00:52 pm adobe, premiere, after affects, max, fcp7, avid

Power Dynamics Below the Line in Hollywood (and everywhere else)

If you’re anywhere near Hollywood this week, you’ve got a hot take on Harvey Weinstein. I’ve only been here a few years, exclusively “below the line”, and I heard all the rumors too. I dreaded ever having even secondhand contact with the man and his company: a powerful star maker with the ability to squash any career he chose, a blatant chauvinist, and an indecent human being whose participation in the entertainment industry seemed immoveable.

So many of us, especially women, are or have been explicitly sexually abused, assaulted or harassed. Some of us have been raped – one in five women will be raped in their lifetimes. A lot of us have also never spoken of sexual violence. Some of us, myself included, have never publicly acknowledged being emotionally abused, gaslit and manipulated for years.

If you ask yourself why we don’t speak up immediately, look at the women who have come forward to talk about Weinstein, Bill Cosby, or — god help us — our president. Come forward when it happens and you’re lying and must show proof. Wait until you have strength in numbers to report and you’re a bandwagon attention seeker. Keep quiet forever and well I guess it wasn’t really what you said it was, drama queen. And often a lot of these accusations go nowhere. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits are waiting in a backlog right now.

And the men still win awards, accept paychecks, get elected to office. They continue to hold their power regardless of what they’ve done.

A lot of the conversation has been among above-the-line people over the last week: directors, actors, writers, and similarly visible individuals in the entertainment industry. Abuses by these kinds of people on below-the-line individuals — art department, editors, camera department, technicians, make-up artists — aren’t at all uncommon. But for those of us below-the-line, most of the abuse we face each day isn’t necessarily manifested in a villain like Harvey Weinstein who we can now shame and run out of town. Not everyone has been cornered by a man who tries to expose himself to us or asks us to take a bath with him (although good god, too many of us have).

But all women in our below-the-line workplaces – especially technical roles like in post production where we are vastly outnumbered – are affected by these same power dynamics. It’s the same gender power dynamic that would convince a man to try to force himself on you which exists to some degree in the mind of a man in charge of hiring or promoting you (or not), by nature of how our society is constructed around bias and stereotypes.

And in many ways this is even more damaging and dangerous: the villain isn’t the vile man with the “open secret” of abuse, he’s the Self-Described Nice Guy who thinks he’s doing nothing wrong.

The Self-Described Nice Guy* is different from the Abusive Monster. The Abusive Monster in these circumstances often knows explicitly what he’s doing is bad and just doesn’t care. He’s drunk on power, taking it out via sexual violence. He gropes, touches, rapes, suggests, intimidates. There’s no grey area to what he’s doing to everyday folk: it’s definitely bad and easily condemned once airing the dirty laundry is normal. Go away, Abusive Monster.

(Whether he actually goes away or gets another powerful job is a whole ‘nother thing.)

The Self-Described Nice Guy is more pervasive and harder to avoid. The Self-Described Nice Guy’s implicit gender bias prevents him from making good judgements about what women are capable of in tech jobs. Nice Guy thinks his assumptions about women are progressive and helpful – women just want to have babies (no they don’t), they’re not as mathy (yes they are), they need my protection (no they don’t) – when in reality they’re backwards and harmful. The Nice Guy sees himself in young men and naturally wishes to mentor and promote a younger version of himself. The Nice Guy seeks to make hiring decisions through a meritocracy, ignoring privilege and artificial barriers that exist.

White male privilege by Swedish artist Emanu

He too is drunk on power, but he doesn’t know it until it’s threatened: he hears the word “diversity” and writes a 100 page memo on why women are biologically unsuited for this work. Thanks Nice Guy, people say, maybe we should listen to your insight.

But these wrongful assumptions and scientifically incorrect facts are actively keeping women from being successful in below-the-line technical jobs.

Only about 18% of picture editors and 3% of directors of photography in television and film are women, and that number hasn’t improved in 20 years and continues to drop off in other technical classifications. Expanding beyond the entertainment industry into adjacent fields where data is more widely collected, we see women graduating at increasing rates in engineering and computer science and leaving their jobs by mid-career. In fact, over 40% of female engineers leave by age thirty, and only a quarter of those leave for family purposes. The other reasons? A lack of promotional opportunities and mentorship – far more barriers to climbing the ladder than men -- yes, they also leave jobs because they're frustrated, but at a much lower rate.

And it’s not just the big picture stuff, like mentorship. Women die a death of a thousand cuts from Nice Guys during their career, eventually exiting when they’ve had too much. Things like being overtalked in meetings, having credit for their ideas co-opted, being passed over for a gig because they probably can’t lift a camera, being called a bitch or a prude depending on the circumstances, or being corrected on tone happen every single day. Being accused of making everything “a gender thing” when suggesting more inclusive language is common. Being laughed at for suggesting an organization seek a woman for a panel of experts. Being complimented on appearance but never job performance. Being accused of tokenism for hiring another woman.

Reed Morano, ASC -- Emmy winning director/woman able to lift a camera.

In a ten year pan-industry study, IZA Institute of of Labor Economics found that this gap didn’t exist because of skill or bargaining power or motivation. Men just valued women less than they valued men.

These acts are committed by Nice Guys who just want to keep things fair in the industry. They often consider themselves allies, but they don’t internalize the fact that the industry’s narrow path to success was built to sustain only people like them. And many women choose never to speak of it. When we come forward when it happens, we’re accused of embellishment and must show proof. If we wait until we have strength in numbers, we’re bandwagon feminists who get pushed in a room alone together, separated from the network of influence. And if we continue to keep quiet forever, we’re an example of how this problem obviously just doesn’t exist at all.

It’s all the same power dynamic as a physically, violently abusive person. It just happens in micro-interactions every single day instead.

While Abusive Monster usually knows his power, Self-Described Nice Guy often doesn’t because he’s just too nice to leverage something like gender dynamics, right? But when Self-Described Nice Guys refuse to listen to women, accept their male privilege, and ask how to help, their place in the power structure is solidified.

If Weinstein is to be a turning point for Hollywood, it needs to be a turning point from the bottom up too. I hope that being able to tell the world about the horrifying crimes against women that these powerful men commit becomes normal and drives these monsters out of the mainstream, and that accepting that women are generally telling the truth becomes normal. I want to believe that openly talking about gender power dynamics more and more will help level the playing field, so women who come forward can feel safe and find justice instead of being called sluts and accused of attention-seeking.

But the truth is that men still hold this power, and without true, committed allies willing to actively share it, this is just another week in Hollywood.

(*Women can be Nice Guys too.)

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Oct 12, 2017 at 11:15:39 pm gender, power, privilege, hollywood, film and television

An Oral History of My Illegal Internships

Whether by necessity or the evolution of a specific kind of culture, internships have emerged as a dominant “foot-in-the-door” for the post production industry. Among those internships, the unpaid variety tend to dominate in a way that is not seen in many other fields such as business and medicine. Sure, unpaid internships aren’t exclusive to post production; however, for some reason we’ve collectively decided that the single biggest way to prove one’s merit is by working in some capacity for free.

It’s almost as if everyone believes that because they suffered the difficulty of doing often humiliating or degrading work for free, everyone else should too.

In our industry, it seems like most people don’t understand the line between legal and illegal internships. The young people trying to get experience and move up the ladder need to know what’s legal, but they can’t really do anything about it. The people who really need to know these guidelines are the hiring managers and producers in charge of the intern experience — the people who can make a difference. It’s not that free work is altogether bad or off limits. It’s sometimes the right move for personal enrichment, donation of time, or just to learn some new skills. The issue is that we aren’t ensuring that up and coming talent are valued, either through being paid minimum wage or guaranteed an valuable educational experience.

I completed three internships while I attended Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis — IUPUI. I graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Arts and Science and a Certificate in Applied Computer Science. I worked nearly full time, lived off-campus, and had parents who were able to give me money for books and fees not covered by loans — who were also available to help me with my living expenses when I really needed it. I currently have $27,723.91 in federal student loan debt, which I deferred for the first few years of my career since my income was too low.

Tired, malnourished, and happy to be done.

Since I was an Indiana resident attending an Indiana school, I was able to get in-state rates with a small scholarship. I chose IUPUI both for cost and for proximity to Indianapolis businesses where I could intern or work. I no longer have records of exactly what I paid from 2005-2009, but the current rates for attendance are about $4,700 per semester in my program. That’s just shy of $37,000 for four years of a full course load, about $255 per credit hour.

I completed three internships while attending IUPUI. Two of them were illegal by today’s standards.

I was and am very lucky and privileged to have been able to have these experiences. Many people are not able to get through the door and in the room at all because they cannot afford to work for free. It was incredibly hard for me to balance all this, but I knew if things really got out of control I had some back-up with my parents bailing me out. As a result of my ability to spend 10-15 hours a week on these internships instead of working for actual money, I was able to stack my resume upon graduation in a way someone with equal skills but less parental support was unable to do.

That made a difference for me, as it does many other privileged people in this industry. As a result, opportunities for employment and career growth for those who had to prioritize other things are limited or removed entirely. Those people are approached with an attitude of “well, I guess they didn’t try hard enough or want it badly enough. I guess they’re just not as good.” (Infuriatingly, the people who proudly boast about the unpaid internships and free work they did when they were young are the first to criticize low or no pay freelance opportunities. Both of these things can devalue the industry in different ways.)

I want to stress that I’m going to discuss my experiences as an intern and a student from my own experience and perspective, using the the US Department of Labor’s 2010 “Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act” fact sheet as a yard stick. Maybe they weren’t illegal back then, but they sure are now. And today is what’s relevant. I want people to see what I was required to do and why it was wrong then and illegal now.

Before I describe my illegal internships, I want to give you some background on what the Department of Labor considers to legal or not. The DOL has a test in six parts which private sector internships must comply with. If the internship fails the test, then the internship is actually non-exempt employment and must be paid minimum wage plus overtime for time in excess of 40 hours in a week.

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If these conditions are met, then there is no employment arrangement under The Fair Labor Standards Act and no minimum wage or overtime payment is required. The more like an extension of an educational experience the internship is, the more likely it is to be considered a true internship.

A very important distinction in the work interns do: if the skills they’re learning are broadly applicable to other work environments with the primary benefit not being for the employer, that’s okay. On the other hand, if they’re performing productive work for the employer — filing, answering phones, clerical work — then although they may be getting some useful skills for the future, they are not excluded from the FSLA’s minimum wage requirements. If interns are doing productive work that would otherwise be completed by giving additional hours to or hiring an additional employee and are not under the constant and direct supervision of a regular employee of the company in a constant educational environment, they are not an intern.

Let me put it a different way: when you send an intern out to fetch lunch or finish your paperwork, you should be paying them for their time. If they are doing solo work on a deadline a regular employee would have otherwise been assigned to do, you should pay them for their time.

My first illegal internship was in 2007 at a small post house in Indianapolis that no longer exists, so I won’t even mention them by name. I spent about 4 months as an intern, about 12 hours a week. This was the internship I dreamed about when I moved to the city for school. I was able to connect with a real editor who let me shadow him during the internship and beyond. When I was out of school, he got me my first freelance job. We’re still in touch and he was a great and positive force early in my career. I spent time in the edit suite with him and his clients. I learned how to run a room. I also got my first hands-on experience with Avid and was able to fiddle around with it myself. I got introduced to the machine room and saw how patching worked. I went on shoots with real clients. I recut an old project and had a producer give me some feedback.

The post house had won sports Emmys, which I enjoyed holding at the time.

But I also had major complaints with this internship which I brought up with my advisor, largely because the company was beginning to fold up while I was interning there. For the longest time I thought I was being over-dramatic. It wasn’t until the last few years that I really realized this was not only unethical, it is now truly illegal. I would fetch lunch frequently for people who disrespected me and whined when I got them the wrong thing. I was put in charge of making coffee and sending mail, walking to the post office somewhat regularly. I answered phones a lot and ran the front desk on the regular, which was hard because nobody introduced themselves to me. I didn’t have anyone sitting in the Avid suite with me and my book, explaining to me that the software was unstable and crashing and it wasn’t my fault. I was asked to ingest media for a project without supervision and scolded when I did it wrong. I spent weeks upon weeks in a storage room alone re-organizing a sound library and filing paperwork. When people were laid off, I cleaned out their offices. Eventually I started cutting small projects the laid off individuals would have worked on.

By today’s standards, this violates #1, #2, #3 and #4 on the DOL’s lil test. My university would likely argue it was not illegal because they provided the educational structure around it, so the internship was a proper extension of an educational experience they were providing for me. I think if you look hard at the DOL fact sheet and the educational environment that was offered, this argument wouldn’t hold up. IUPUI had what was essentially an “internship class” where you could earn college credit through the internship. The class was online with some light reading and a lot of forum posts about what you did and what you learned. Other than a site visit once during the experience, the university was hands-off. For the privilege of answering phones and writing forum posts to my advisor every day, struggling to describe how that skill would benefit me in life, I paid for three credit hours plus fees. By today’s standards, I would have paid at least $756 to be an unpaid intern.

I was lucky to have this internship. It created opportunities for me and gave me exposure to the kind of environment I needed at that time. It was key to getting my next internship. But it was hard to accomplish and at minimum, morally wrong for the employer and school to put me in this situation. But even so, how many other students were unable to participate in this before the company shut down?

My next internship was a legal unpaid internship at the Indiana State Museum. The museum is a non-profit organization which grants some leeway with internships as volunteer experiences that differ from private sector interns, but it doesn’t really matter. This internship was a true extension of my educational experience largely because I did not give any immediate benefit to the museum and yeah, definitely impeded its operations. I completed this internship for college credit again with IUPUI’s dubious “intern experience” course, but the true value of the experience came from the museum employee I worked with. She gave me real projects to do, offering guidance while also allowing me to work independently. Truthfully she could have finished them better and faster without me. I finished a couple neat audio projects that were featured in the museum (and took weeks longer than they should have) and a couple smaller videos that were featured on the museum’s new YouTube page.

I also got the opportunity to do research for upcoming exhibits’ video work and see how my hands-on experience would directly apply to months of public enjoyment. And I was given the museum’s resources and equipment to explore independently and create whatever I wanted. The experience was entirely for my benefit and the fact that the museum ended up using any of my work was an unexpected bonus for me. I had context, access, and patience with lots of feedback.

My third internship was by far the worst and most illegal. My senior year of college, I picked up an unpaid internship with an organization called NUVO Newsweekly, an alternative lifestyle magazine in Indianapolis. They wanted video production interns that could go to events to shoot and edit content for their YouTube page, promising that I’d work with a producer and get great experience in corresponding with that producer and learning more about editing while also building my portfolio. It seemed like a great way to build up my reel at the end of my college career, and my friend Katie was also able to get the same internship, so we went for it.

Oh, how great for Katie and me.

And then they threw in: oh yeah, you’re also part of the Street Team so we’ll have you do a little bit of promo stuff while you’re shooting. No big deal, we have a table with copies of NUVO and we direct people to it. Uh, okay.

We were regularly given a list of events happening in the city that we needed to choose to cover, a fixed number of them required per week. If we didn’t go to enough, we got in trouble. The up side to this was we got to see and experience many different sides of the city for free, attending concerts and events we never would have considered before. The downside was that the street team aspect was understated and the educational aspect was overstated.

This seems educational.

We went to our first event at a bar: an incredibly loud, incredibly late concert on a week night when both of us had work or school the next day. Nobody from NUVO greeted us, and I’m not sure anyone else in the leadership we worked with ended up attending. Our first field experience as interns was as two young women alone in a bar with video production equipment and no further direction on what to create. But we did it anyway, and quickly cut together a highlights video. The all-important producer collaboration and educational feedback experience amounted to “wow, great job! Upload it!”

We did more events. Roller derby, art shows, festivals, restaurant reviews, other local concerts. Turned out more content. Got more passive thumbs up. Look, I’ve seen these videos years later. They were fine and good, but they had room for improvement. We were not above guidance, but we WERE creating SEO-friendly, regular video content for free. We were being had.

An example of our perfect, no-notes work.

The likely highlight of the whole intern experience was being assigned to cover the end of Indy Wine Festival. We were told we needed to also break down the NUVO tent, table and materials, load it in the NUVO branded jeep, and drive the jeep back to headquarters. When we arrived, we realized the jeep was parked in the middle of the festival in a huge urban park — and it being the end of the day at a wine festival in June in the midwest, the lawn was littered with people who were passed out. We spent an hour figuring out how to take the tent down, googling to find instructions since none were provided. Then we drove through the lawn of the park, trying not to kill anyone.

What kind of insurance policy does this require?

Yeah. The twenty-two year old unpaid intern drove the enormous branded jeep through a park. A liability for sure, but I’m not certain for whom.

I ended up leaving the internship early, in part because I was unhappy with being used for free labor but also because I had transitioned into a full-time job and couldn’t balance going to night events anymore. My friend held on a little longer, having to actually confront the indignant producer and internship coordinator who felt they were giving us the experience of a lifetime. An internship should be a two-way communication, and instead they took her feedback as insubordination.

This internship violated numbers #2, #3, and #4 — massively #3. We were doing work that needed to be done by paid freelancers, not students and industry newcomers who were desperate for experience. At the very least, we deserved minimum wage and maybe a little more promised guidance, or a completely restructured intern experience.

I don’t know if NUVO still has unpaid interns that violate all these rules in the DOL’s test, but I sure hope not. It was incredibly disappointing to be involved in something that was such an obvious racket, taking advantage of young peoples’ passion and telling them they “get to” visit these places and put their work online.

And when it comes to these two illegal internships, that’s really what I feel: disappointment. For all the translatable skills I gained, I had to give up so much of myself. I was essentially working for no pay during a time in my life when giving up hours was incredibly precious and potentially threatening to my survival. I had to somehow make up ground to keep up on my rent and electric bills and gas at my full-time job. By the time I graduated, I was sick constantly and more exhausted than I’d ever been in my life. And I got far less value for the experience than anyone should.

But I was still able to do it and lucky to have the opportunity. Many don’t have the privilege to make these sacrifices to their physical and financial well-being because they have children, no family support, or some other life circumstance to deal with instead. In an industry with a false narrative of “meritocracy” to rise up, we are not lending everyone the opportunity to demonstrate their skills at the beginning of their careers when important choices are made and experiences are had. Those who think they have risen up only because they were better are dismissing the societal, gender, racial, financial, geographical privilege they were granted. This doesn’t mean they didn’t earn it, and it certainly doesn’t mean they’re not good at what they do and didn’t work hard. But the obstacles they had in their path were not the same as others with less privilege.

I described the total cost of my education -- being enrolled was a prerequisite for these internships -- to give you a sense of the actual dollars invested in this experience. My loan costs don't even begin to address the amounts my parents spent on books, car payments or other necessities they helped me with, or the rent, food, and gas I bought. Was this a good value for the educational experience I received?

Me on the set of a local indie having an amazing time on a frigid day with great people -- not all free work is bad.

I don’t put this forward to denegrate a specific school or business who bought into the internship racket: it’s not like ya’ll invented this mess, and it’s not like it’s an easy systemic fix. But I’m disappointed. I would hope that businesses with a stake in the community would recognize the importance of opening up opportunities for all, and how money and time plays into someone’s ability to do that. I would really hope that a school built on positive values and life experience would choose to advocate for paid internships — or ya know, just job placement in general — in lieu of pushing students into the system.

And I would really really hope that those people in the industry that benefitted from internships, either from gaining skills or getting a job, would recognize that no matter how well they managed to do, it would have been a better, more equal educational experience if they hadn’t been taken advantage of for free work. And by extension, that they would advocate for better, more equal educational opportunities for those coming up behind them instead of enforcing the status quo as a matter of paying ones’ dues.

This industry is hard, and that’s fine. If it were easy, everyone one do it and no one would pay for it. I don’t need it to be easier. But why can’t we make it just a little bit more accessible for the next generation, and make the next generation’s industry a little more inclusive as a result?

Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jul 28, 2017 at 2:02:55 am internships, illegal, legal, university

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