We Cut Out The Dirty Parts

29 01 2008

Into The WildI thought today of a cab ride I took back in the seventies in New York City. I was delivering ten-minute editorial reels of film from one part of the city to another — for a looping session, if I remember correctly. As I pulled up in front of the 1600 Broadway building and was getting my fiber boxes of film together, the cabbie asked what I did for a living. Rather than explain that I was an apprentice editor (which would have required more explanation than I had time for), I said that I worked in film editing.

“Ahhh,” he replied, understanding everything. “You cut out the dirty parts.”

I am reminded of that story after reading an infuriating post by Alex Remington (bombastically entitled “Who Should Win The Oscars“) on The Huffington Post giving his opinions about the Oscar races in the non-Top Six categories, what the headline writer calls the “Teaser Categories.” Frankly, I’m not sure what gives Remington the qualifications to talk about filmmaking. His biography on the site notes that he is “an editorial assistant at The Washington Post” and that he “blogs about the Atlanta Braves at Chop-N-Change, and, with E.J. Dionne, moderates the online Washington Post politics discussion group E.J.’s Precinct.”

Now there’s a set of cinematic qualifications. (You can remove the Heavy Irony signs at this point.)

Here is what he has to say about Into The Wild:

Into the WildJay Cassidy A beautiful movie, but the editing isn’t what makes it remarkable. Sean Penn’s restrained direction, Emile Hirsch’s impressive performance, Hal Holbrook’s lovely cameo, and the gorgeous Alaskan landscape are what give this movie its emotional core. In fact, the only time the movie slips are when it breaks the fourth wall and shows its formal composition, as with Eddie Vedder’s recognizable voice singing pedestrian original songs, or when the occasional narration cuts into the narrative.

I’m going to repeat part of that first line for you — “the editing isn’t what makes it remarkable.” From his comments on The Bourne Ultimatum (in which he talks about MTV-style editing), and There Will Be Blood (in which he complains about the editing because the move was too long) it is clear that Remington falls into the large group of people who assume that an editor’s job is to make splices. If a film is too long, the editor didn’t make enough of them. If a film “skips the climax” (his complaint about No Country For Old Men) it’s because the editor made too many splices. (he doesn’t comment on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, presumably because it didn’t fit into a schedule in which he is too busy looking for off-season news about the Atlanta Braves).

For Remington, the editor isn’t a storyteller — he’s a splicemaker.

Now, I had my own issues with Into The Wild, mostly having to do with the film’s unwillingness to explore the psychological aspect of a man who was so egocentric and detached from human beings that he could hurt people who were genuinely open and understanding of him. But that isn’t an editing issue — it’s a point of view issue.

The idea that the direction of a film (“restrained” in Remington’s words), the acting (“impressive” and “lovely” — though I’d hardly call Holbrook’s role a “cameo”), and the cinematography (“gorgeous”) can be separated from the way in which those elements are edited into a film is completely and utterly laughable. The way in which the story of Penn’s film unfolds is all about editing. I’m not saying that this is Cassidy’s sole responsibility, and neither would he (I’m sure). But I’m saying that the editing of a film is about threading the performances and the story and the cinematography. Every one of us knows of occasions when we’ve improved performances in the editing room, or made the story more opaque, or omitted “beautiful” wide shots in favor of character-building close-ups. As I tell my students, nothing ends up in a final film by accident. Something may have happened accidentally on set — though that happens less frequently than we’d think — but the choice to use it in the film is intentional.

My point is quite straightforward here. Editing is more than making things move flashily across the screen. It’s more than cutting out areas of the film that critics would find boring. It’s more than making sure that the audience gets what it wants. It’s more than cutting out the dirty parts.

Though it certainly is partially about all of those things, editing is really about shaping the story told in a work (film, commercial, installation, et al). And that storytelling and shaping is what makes editing a combination of all of the arts that go into making a film. To think anything different is to completely misunderstand what filmmaking is all about.

[In the low blow department, I’m going to quote from another portion of Remington’s article in which he gives the following reason why Michael Giacchino’s score for Ratatouille should win for best musical score:

I honestly don’t remember the score, but I’m going to vote for Ratatouille by default in any category like this where I have no idea.

Hey, I know he’s being clever here. However, in my mind, cleverness doesn’t trump knowledge.]

It Was Bound to Happen

26 01 2008

The surprise is that it took a week.

Two enterprising buyers of URLs, purchased “manilamac” and are selling, tongue planted firmly in cheek, a “Manila folder notebook sleeve for MacBook Air.”

It’s actually a pretty cute site, with links to an ad for one of the designer’s band.

My favorite part of the site is in their FAQ sections where they ask the question “Have you made anything before?” Here is there answer:

Well, yes, no, sort of. Claire hacked a sweatshirt into a skirt and got some blog attention, Jona and his friend Flint created FlickrBlockrs to protect privacy on the internet, and Jona has some really nice t-shirts he designed for his band for sale here.

Don’t forget to pre-order yours today!

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MacWorld and Apple’s New Strategy

25 01 2008

I’ve been sick for the past week (don’t ask, don’t ask) so I may have missed this, but I found one of the most interesting items in Apple’s Macworld announcements to be about their rental pricing strategy.

(No, I’m not about to reach out and grab some Air. As sexy as it looks, I just don’t think that it would my larger needs — larger hard drive, larger number of ports, larger battery life and need for replacement. I’m not really sure that losing all of that is worth the thrill of slipping my Mac out of manila envelope.)

Apple announced, as everybody who cared to pay attention now knows, that they are starting renting movies through the iTunes store. They call it “rentertainment.” You get movies in a decent, though not huge, size (640×480 pixels), have thirty days to start watching them, and then one day before the rental goes dark. You can watch it once or a gazillion times in that 24 hours hours (unless you’re watching BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ, the 1980 German television series that was released in the US as a 15-1/2 movie — unless case you can watch it about 1 and a half times). It’s got titles from all of the majors so the catalog will eventually get pretty deep. And, it’s got a nifty queue feature, like Netflix, that allows you prioritize the order in which content is downloaded.

So, how did Apple manage to pull this off and make friends with the studios? If you ask me (and I don’t have any inside information at all) they did it by their pricing. Standard definition movies at $3.99 for new releases and $2.99 for library titles — HD films are a buck higher for each.

Whoa. Stop right there. Variable pricing depending on traditional release patterns?

Now, I know that this isn’t the same thing as letting the record labels set their own pricing willy-nilly, which is what drove NBC-Universal songs out of iTunes in the first place. But it does strike me as a significant move towards shifting the model away from one-price shopping, which has been Apple’s desire since the beginning of of its ascent.

Apple allows for free downloads of chargeable content. As a member of the motion picture Academy, I’ve been able to download some soundtrack albums for films up for consideration this year. Some of the television studios placed gift cards in copies of Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter last year, allowing readers to download up-for-consideration episodes of “The Office” and other shows.

So, we know that Apple is looking for ways to cleverly monetize their content besides the traditional download.

This strikes me as a logical next step, and I’m glad for the direction that it indicates Apple is moving. Variable pricing is not a bad thing. And working with the studios and labels is also not an inherently bad thing. There are good ideas in many places. Even, shockingly, from the majors.

(Image courtesy of thunkdifferent.com)

Academy Nominations

22 01 2008

For the six people who haven’t heard already, here are the Academy Award nominations. More apt for us, here are the nominations in the various editing categories:

“The Bourne Ultimatum,” Christopher Rouse
“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Juliette Welfling
“Into the Wild,” Jay Cassidy
“No Country for Old Men,” Roderick Jaynes
“There Will Be Blood,” Dylan Tichenor

“The Bourne Ultimatum”
“No Country For Old Men”
“There Will Be Blood”

“Michael Clayton”
“No Country for Old Men”
“There Will Be Blood”

Not too much in the way surprises here, though I have to say that I’m thrilled that Welfing got her justly deserved nomination (you try editing a picture where the character doesn’t move or speak for most of it). I don’t think she’s got a snowball’s chance. Remember that the nominations are made by editors. The full Academy will vote on them. With her film’s omission from the Best Picture category, I’d say she’s got a very steep hill to climb if she’s to win.

What’s interesting is that three of the nominated films weren’t nominated for best picture (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Into The Wild). And two of them weren’t nominated for Best Screenplay (see below) (The Bourne Ultimatum and Into The Wild)

Diablo Cody, “Juno”
Nancy Oliver, “Lars and the Real Girl”
Tony Gilroy, “Michael Clayton”
Brad Bird, Story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird, “Ratatouille”
Tamara Jenkins, “The Savages”

Paul Thomas Anderson, “There Will Be Blood”
Christopher Hampton, “Atonement”
Ronald Harwood, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, “No Country for Old Men”
Sarah Polley, “Away From Her”

I’m not into prognosticating since I always get things messed up with what I’d like. More on that later, but for now Congratulations to all of the nominees!!

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My Panel at Sundance

20 01 2008

On Friday, Michael Phillips and I gave a talk called “Creating a Low-Budget Film with High Production Value.” One of the things that we did was focus on a project that we worked on together — a low budget character-based psychological thriller called JACK IN THE BOX. DigitcalContentProducer blogged about the panel.

Michael, who is the brains of this duo, has a great technical background, which he was able to bring to his dual role as co-editor (with me) and producer of the film. He and I discussed preparing for the shoot, in a way that could help minimize post-production problems. We concentrated on two avenues. The first was the technical preparation that enabled us to finish a DI in a format that could feed multiple distribution formats as well as accentuate storytelling points. The second was the script preparation that is necessary in order to know how to shoot and edit in a way that promotes a great understanding of story.

From my perspective, the panel went very well — with a full house and dozens of people who stayed after the six o’clock finish for nearly an hour, to ask more questions. The attendees at this, and previous, Sundance panels are usually fascinating, committed filmmakers who are looking for ways to improve themselves. That’s why I love doing them.

The next day’s panel, a discussion between Saar Klein and Doug Liman (editor and director of JUMPERS) is profiled in the blog right here.

Sundance Panel on Web Distribution

20 01 2008

DigitalContentProducer has a great recap on a panel that I was too stupid to realize was being given up here at Sundance yesterday — on the evolution and monetization of Internet Content. It’s well worth a read and I hope that the festival puts it up on their Podcast site soon (all of their recently uploaded podcasts are filmmaker interviews).

The panelists included people as diverse as Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, Veoh.com’s Dmitry Shapiro, Joost.com’s Mike Volpi, and the NBC Universal/NewsCorp’s Hulu.com’s Jason Kilar, as well as MPAA’s Dan Glickman, Phil Lelyveld formerly with Disney, and MTV Networks/Comedy Central/South Park Studios Digital Media representative Erik Flanagan.

Some great points that were covered, according to Craig Erpelding’s article, included a general sense that the lack of reliable and good broadband in the United State is creating massive stumbling blocks for content distribution. (We really are a third world country when it comes to the Net).

veoh.com’s Shapiro noted that, according to his statistics, 40% of his content is consumed during network Prime Time hours. If this is true across the majority of content sites then this is major problem for the traditional television model and their advertising dollars — it is clear that viewers are shifting their delivery means from the television box to internet delivery. Satellite and cable providers — take note! Network executives — start changing your plans for television’s future, because there might not be much of one as we know it today.

Erpelding further notes that:

The panel listed the most powerful/important/influential companies currently running today in the market are: Google/YouTube, Bittorrent (due to the possibility of HD delivery and higher quality viewing experiences), and FaceBook.

I know that the networks today are working hand-in-glove with the social networking sites. It would appear that they must move that strategy front and center.

On the Power Of Stopping

20 01 2008

frog thinkingArt Durkee, who is (according to his blog) a “wandering musician, artist, and writer, traveling across the face of the earth,” talks today in his blog Dragoncave, about watching the 1980 TV mini-series Shogun with friends and observing that there are many parts of the series that move very slowly compared to how they would have been edited today (go look at The French Connection today — a film which was known for its heart-beat raising editing when it came out in 1971). He remarks, favorably, that there were moments where the camera lingered on faces or cultural details that would have been long excised in today’s Bourne Identity world.

It’s rare to find film editing this careful or slow-paced these days; only one or two recent films come to mind. Everything has to be edited faster, choppier, more frenetically; it keeps us moving briskly along.

Then, because he is the itinerant traveller type he brings the point into modern life which, he says, “seems to continually accelerate without ever taking time out.” [For those of us with A-type personalities, we’d call that the “continually ON world”]. Then he says:

Anything that slows you down is a good thing.That may seem impossible to believe, or to achieve, but consider this: Life is as much about how you get where you’re going as it is about adding to the list of things you’ve achieved and places you’ve gone. Life is not a tally sheet of projects to be checked off, unless it is also a narrative of how you got them done. When and how much don’t matter as much as how, itself.

I’m reminded of something that Anne Coates once told me. Anne, who is an absolutely extraordinary editor (having cut LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and OUT OF SIGHT, among many others) said that when she first started on digital editing systems — the Lightworks in her case — on OUT OF SIGHT she had to consciously edit slower than she was technically able to cut.  She did this in order to preserve some thinking time. In the old days, I had trained myself to think as I was pulling a trim from a bin, dragging it over to the synchronizer, splicing it, matching the mag track, and splicing that, et al. It took several minutes to make a single cut, as opposed to the several seconds today. But I used that extra time to think about the next several cuts, shaping character and story, and thinking.

We need to figure out how to get back this thinking time. Durkee’s suggestion that we simply stop every now and is a pretty good one.

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Good Basic FCP Tutorial

16 01 2008

Larry Jordan, who now runs the Digital Production Buzz podcast, has posted a pretty good first tutorial on navigating the windows in FCP. You can get to it either by checking it out on the Digital Producer Magazine website, or by going directly to the Quicktime file here.

The Way To Grab Audiences – Web Style

16 01 2008

On this blog, I generally don’t get more than about 150 hits a day.  When I check out the blog stats I find something very funny and I’m going to pass along some advice to you as a result.

Way back in the dark days of 2007, I did a blog posting about the movement away from telephone landlines into cel service.  I called the post “Why It Would Be Good To Own Stock In Mobile Content Companies.”  Every day, the lion’s share of my traffic enters on that site.

And, I assume, goes away in an instant.

The search terms that people are using to find me are led by “cell phones” and “cell phone.”

So, here’s the advice.  If you want to drive traffic to your web site, use those words as often as you can.

I’m joking of course, but there are plenty of businesses who are devoted to manipulating the search engines (an increasingly complex task) to drive traffic to your web site, mostly to Google right now.  There are some established rules that everyone knows — the biggest being that the more people who link to you, the higher your ranking is going to be on the search results.  At the beginning of web search engines, people would overload the invisible headers (or insert tiny little image files) that had tons of winning search times hidden in them.  You’d look at the source code for a web page and see the line “sex sex sex sex sex sex sex” written hundreds of times in the header.

Search engines very quickly caught on and starting inventing more complex algorithms to make the search results more fair.

[This has, recently, started to turn back on itself — with search engine companies using those complex algorithms to make the search results more friendly to the people who pay them for placement.]

Somehow, it all seems too much — gaming the system (no matter who does it) makes for crappier search results and less useful web search experiences.

That’s why I’m thinking of put the terms “cel phone” into my tags about 1000 times.  Let me know how it works out.

Edit At Home — Without Talent!!

13 01 2008

John August, a screenwriter who has a fantastic blog about writing, talks about the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray smackdown.  Conventional wisdom now has Blu-Ray winning, since Warners became the 4th of the six big distributors to choose the format.  So, John went out and bought his first Blu-Ray disk and a PS3 to play it on.  He talks about how he is most excited about the enormous amount of disk space on a Blu-Ray disk and then goes on to say…

Most of all, Blu-ray discs are big. My dream — which I pitched at last year’s Sundance Film Festival — is to use the extra capacity to include compressed clips of all the original source material, so ambitious viewers could recut the movie on their own systems. That’s a big thing to ask for Sony to support, so reasonable success with this month’s DVD release will be a major factor.

Frankly, I can’t imagine that anyone, aside from a few film students and some geeks with too much time on their hands, would really want to spend the months necessary to do an alternative edit of the movies.

Still, it’s an interesting concept and one which I cannot believe will ever come to pass.  I can’t imagine directors and actors willing to give up the control over every edit, and let a bunch of 12 year olds with iMovie take over.  One of the classes that I teach at USC is called Advanced Editing and we do something in the class that, to my knowledge, no other film school does.  We get the dailies from an entire low budget feature film; the class then divvies up the dailies and, over the course of the semester, we edit a different version of the film, taking it through the actual process of editing, re-editing and re-editing again — four or five times.  It’s a huge undertaking, and the class has done some enormously difficult and interesting work.

But my point is that it is very very difficult to get filmmakers to part with their dailies.  They are petrified of it — and for good reason.  There are an enormous number of things that get laid down on film/tape that you wouldn’t want anyone to see.  I’m not talking about the blooper reel material — that ends up on DVDs anyway.  I’m talking about experiments that the actors or directors do with the material.  Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.  If I were them, I wouldn’t want to have to think that a wildly bizarre take might someday be seen by anyone who buys or steals the DVD of my film.  I would worry about a chilling effect on the set.

So, while I’m interested in the concept, I can’t but think that it’s a terrifying idea.

[In all fairness to John, he himself posts early version of some of his screenplays on his site for download.  Not all of the drafts, I’m quite sure.  But some early ones.]

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