Predicting The Oscars

18 02 2008

Film School Rejects takes on the unenviable chore of predicting the winner of the Best Editing Oscars.

Frankly, this is a fools’ errand (though I’m perfectly happy to have fools other than myself do it). I’ve been a member of the Academy for years now, and I can never figure out why one film gets the applause and others do not. I’ve sat in the midst of the Academy weekend screenings and heard the audience hiss and boo, and then watched as the film went on to get nominated. (It happened last year with DREAMGIRLS) I know that the films that I nominate or vote for, rarely get the award.

That having been said, the site notes that:

An award since 1934, the winner has often been films that have raked in plenty of other awards. It’s not always shared with Best Picture, but it usually comes out of that category. Seen as a technical feat as much as an artistic feat, editing is important to pacing, story and character. People may not remember all Best Editing winners (like Barbara McLean for Wilson in 1944), but more often than not, it’s known for honoring a major film.

Then it goes on to talk about each film and describe why it might win, and why it might not. A sample of why BOURNE ULTIMATUM might win:

Rouse isn’t new to the Oscars, although he hasn’t won. He was nominated for United 93, so he carries a degree of reputation. Also, this is the only film in the fray that fits the big-budget action style that this category often honors.

Honestly, I can’t imagine that anyone in the Academy actually pays attention to who is nominated (what “degree of reputation”) the editor might have. Most of them barely can figure out what we do, much less what we’ve done before. In my experience, they often choose either the flashiest film (because they believe that editing is all about splicing), or the film that they liked for Best Picture (because — “Hey, I liked that film. So, I guess it was well edited” — actually, not a bad guideline now that I think of it). No one thinks of the oeuvre of an editor’s work, unless that editor is Dede Allen or Verna Fields.

An example of why they think THERE WILL BE BLOOD might not win:

Quite simply, the performances of Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano, along with the top-end awards that P.T. Anderson is vying for, might leave Dylan Tichenor in the dust. Additionally, it’s hard to award an editing honor to a film that runs as long as this one did.

Last night I sat at the Eddie Awards, the yearly award given the American Cinema Editors organization. There was much talk of the subtlety of the editing in BLOOD and the success of the editing in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (there was much laughter at the picture of Roderick Jayne, who is the nom de montage for the Coen brothers, and sighs of relief when the film didn’t win). Ultimately, BOURNE won for Drama, proving that even editors are influenced by quick cutting. [An aside here, I also thought that the editing on that film was masterful — the scene in Waterloo Station is so intricately shaped that I smiled both times I saw it.]

Film School Reject’s pick — BOURNE. No rejects they.

RIP – Analog Cel Phones

17 02 2008

The Washington Post notes a death that most people I know on the Coasts really won’t notice — tomorrow (February 18th) the FCC will allow mobile phone operators to shut off their analog phone service. AT&T and Verizon will shut off those services that day. (Spring and T-Mobile don’t have analog networks anymore). If you’ve bought a cel phone anytime in the last, oh, four years, you won’t really to worry about it. But I would imagine that there are some people who haven’t been buying a new phone every year or two.

I suppose that there were plenty of people who complained about the shift away from dial phones to push-button tone phones (I seem to remember that, for years, when you purchased a phone there was a toggle switch on it that enabled you to use tone or pulse mode — pulse being the old fashioned dial way). I also suppose that there were people who complained about the invention of the car, the printing press, and people.

The fact remains that, even with this event, the United States is still miles behind virtually every other country in the world in terms of digital cel phone technology and deployment. It’s tough to imagine how we’re going to get to the point where we can receive reliable cell service everywhere (I’m fond of mentioning that, even on my first trip to the Middle East, I could get a cel signal in the middle of the Jordanian desert, but still couldn’t get one in my living room in Santa Monica).

When an old dinosaur like the United States moves off of analog cell service and, next year, onto digitally-transmitted television, it makes me hope for the future. What could be next — digital downloads of music, films and television?

Maybe someday, when the RIAA and the AMPTP get their heads out of their butts.

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HD-DVD and Blu-Ray End War, The World Yawns

16 02 2008

Reuters reported today that Toshiba Corp is planning on shutting down their HD-DVD format for hi-def DVDs, admitting to the world what everyone else has been saying since Warner Bros announced in January, before CES, that they were planning on releasing their DVDs on Blu-Ray only. Between that, Wal-Mart’s decision yesterday to go all Blu-Ray and Best Buy’s and Netflix’s earlier announcements that they were going to sell/rent Blu-Ray as well.

The real question is — who cares?

I know that the studios would love to have a new DVD format, so they can resell all of the DVDs that you all already bought on standard def DVDs. However, I also know that, tempting though it may be, I don’t know many people who are dying to buy a Hi Def version of ANIMAL HOUSE to replace their perfectly good regular ordinary DVD.

Here’s how I look at it. 90% of the market out there couldn’t really tell the difference between DVD and Blu-Ray if they looked at the boxes the disks came in. In general, HD doesn’t pass the “Mom test,” in which you ask yourself if your Mom would care if we improved her technology. The day that I hear my mother tell me that she really appreciates the increased resolution and crisp 5.1 Dolby sound on Blu-Ray disks compared to her four year old DVD player, is the day that I retire from the business and start tending bar in the Caribbean. For most people there is very little motivation to shift to the new format. You can, conceivably, make it attractive — by making the player cost extremely low and providing such cool extra features that Mom and Dad will swallow the cost of replacing their existing DVDs (an extra special — it will wash your dishes while you watch the aforementioned ANIMAL HOUSE would work nicely for most people). But it’s dubious that you can make any money on that model.

You will, of course, get new purchasers of DVD players and material to move over, but that will be a gradual process.

So that takes care of most people. What about the geeks?

There will always be the Toy people. If it’s new, they’ll want it. And some of them will be willing to pay a premium for it. But that isn’t much of a market.

And the rest of the geek market — well, most of them are looking at their media online or through their iPods and Apple-TV type devices. Many of them are downloading the material legally and illegally. So, where is the market in that? It’s there in some small quantity but, once again, is it enough to base an entire market on?

What we’re left with, if you follow my argument, is a small market of high end people who aren’t so high end as to pull their content off of the web, combined with a slightly larger market of people who have to buy a new player anyway, haven’t accumulated a bunch of standard def content already, and will be completely price driven.

I know, I know. I am leaving out the (I’m told) increasing number of people who love to watch movies on a big ass television with their friends. But I’m waiting to see if those people really exist. Frankly, I think most of them are watching football and NASCAR, but that may just be a prejudice on my part.

Needless to say, I’m not racing out on this news and buying shares in Sony.

3D Movies and Theaters

15 02 2008

MarketSaw, a blog which focuses on 3-D movies, has a list of theatres which screen 3-D films in the Real D technology. There are more and more of them each time I check back it seems — actually the list was last updated at the beginning of December, but we know it will continue to grow.

How Do People Watch Films? And How Does Apple Rent Them?

15 02 2008

Apple announced at MacWorld, way back in the dark days of last month, that they were going to start renting movies through iTunes. I discussed the pricing strategy back in earlier post, but I’ve recently started thinking about another aspect of their plan — the timing strategy of the rentals.

Let me take a detour to set this up.

Back in the early days of video rental stores, we rented by the day. Rent RASHOMON for one day and you paid “X” dollars. Keep it a second day and you paid “2X” dollars. Pretty simple. So, cheap bastard that I am, I would rent a film and return it the next day. A pain in the butt, but there wasn’t much of a choice.

After a few years, video stores realized that they could make more money if they charged slightly more money but let you keep the rental for a few days without paying additional fees. People like me would rent more than one movie at a time, so we could watch a few over a number of days without constant trips back and forth to the rental store. They also continued to make loads of money on people who kept them past the few days and called that fee a “late fee.”

Gradually, the rental period got longer until my local 20/20 (which has a fantastic selection of Criterion and foreign films) allows me to take out films for a week (except for new rentals) and even gives a discount for people, like myself, who rent three movies at a time. It’s a great rental model. Netflix, of course, takes this another step forward — you can have a movie for an unlimited period of time without late fees, but you can’t have more than a specified number at a time and you have to pay a monthly fee no matter how few movies you rent during that month. Brilliant.

Enter Apple, with their online downloaded movie rentals. Their policy (which, I suspect without a shred of evidence, is driven by the film distribution companies with whom they’ve made deals) is that you have 30 days to start viewing anything that you rent. However, once you start viewing, you have 24 hours to finish watching the film (time spent on PAUSE doesn’t count in this).

And here we come to the great divide.

For me, I don’t start watching a movie unless I know I can finish it. If a movie is three hours long, I better have three hours to watch it or it ain’t gonna happen. So, Apple’s policy makes perfect sense for my viewing habits. I’m a storyteller so I can’t see how I can have the actual storytelling experience if I’m taking a big, long, intermission somewhere in the midst of the film — especially because it’s an intermission that the filmmakers didn’t plan. The same holds true in a slightly different way for television. If there are commercials in the program, I show no reticence in picking up and meandering over to the refrigerator or the bathroom or the phone for a brief interlude. After all, even though I usually whizz through the commercials at Tivo warp speed, the original creators of the show knew that there were going to be a ton of ads in the exact place that I’m stopping.

But viewing something that wasn’t meant to have breaks in it — like an HBO or Public TV show or a feature… that’s a different story. I won’t stop it.

I feel that I am definitely in the minority now. My daughter, and many many other people, watch a movie over several days. I spoke to her last month and she had just finished watching the Krystof Kieslowski trilogy — BLUE, WHITE and RED (three truly awesome films) and was in the middle of watching THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE. She had watched the first part the night before, was going to watch some more that night, and probably finish it the following night.

I don’t get it, but it’s clear that more and more people are viewing media that way.

For them, I’d think, Apple’s policy is a non-starter. If you put the film away until the next night, and when you return to it then it is completely gone from your iTunes or Apple TV, you simply can’t watch media the way you want to watch it.

In a funny way, Apple is trying to create a new media opportunity, using an old viewing model. They are trying to distribute film in a new way (well, relatively new anyway) using the old movie theatre model. That is, you’re going to sit in one place and watch this film pretty much from start to finish.

Of course, that’s why I suspect that this is really the result of the studios license arrangements, rather than Apple’s idea. They fear losing control over their intellectual property and so, in a typically short sighted move, retreat to the old model of movie viewing, thinking it will prevent piracy somehow.

Ironically, Fox (which is one of the studios that is permitting iTunes rentals) is also the studio that is, in selected cases, putting a iPod version of their films onto a second disc in their store DVDs. This enables the user, after authorization through the iTunes store (hmmmmmmmmmmm, interesting) to upload that version of the film to their iPod, computer’s iTunes, or (I’m assuming) Apple TV. I understand that, once you’ve bought the DVD you’ve bought it, which is miles away from renting it. But the slightly innovative thought process behind putting this H.264 version in the DVD package is a different manner of thinking from the one-day rental mindset.

I expect that Apple will slowly change this rental policy. In the meantime, I find it interesting to see what this reveals about our film viewing habits.

How do YOU watch your media? All at once, or in bite-sized chunks?

Newspapers Struggle To Survive and YouTube

14 02 2008

Reuters reports that the Los Angeles Times today named Russ Stanton as its new editor. The interesting thing about this is that Stanton is presently the paper’s digital news chief.

What is even more interesting are the candidates who Stanton beat out for the job — Jim Newton, the Times editorial page editor, and Managing Editor John Arthur.

Stanton, who grew up in California, has served as the Times’ innovation editor, overseeing its digital news service, since February 2007. He joined the paper in 1997 and has also been its business editor.

In the olden days of, say, three years ago, it would have been natural to hire either of those other two people. When they didn’t come from the the family of previous editors and publishers, newspaper editors came from the ranks of the hard news gatherers and opinion makers. And the editorial pages and managing editors used to fit the bill quite nicely.

In the new days of, say, last week, everyone on the publisher side of print publishing is trying to figure out a way to make money when people are leaving general circulation newspapers and magazines in droves. And, with that exit, goes the advertisers. Newspapers are also being hampered by the emergence of eBay and Craig’s List, as viable alternatives to their previously lucrative classified ads sections.

In short, the Internet was stealing everything from them that television hadn’t already made off with. It is debatable whether they were doing a better job than newspapers did, but that didn’t seem to matter.

So, in a fit of “if you can’t beat ’em, join’em” newspapers have been designing better web sites and looking towards UGC (User Generated Content — think YouTube but on the site of your local newspaper) as a means of sucking people in. Last year I gave a presentation to a number of editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer in which we ended up talking about exactly that — in a world in which newspapers can’t afford local beat reporters, how can you get local news reported on by the newspaper. Blogs, UGC, Wikis, social networking sites — all of this came up for discussion.

And now, the Los Angeles Times, which has been around since 1881 and might be considered venerable by some, has broken with their tradition and acknowledged that someone from the digital news side of their business might actually have something to say about presenting news to people.

It’s a welcome break from venerable tradition.

Creating Great Comments In Your NLE

13 02 2008

Not to get too geeky on you but Scott Janush, over at Post Production Standards, has a great tip for entering exportable comments in an Avid bin. He creates columns with specific uses and then… well, I’ll let him tell you:
Information is my friend, so I am always looking at things and trying to find new ways to organize that info or refine existing info.

So, in the AVID, they give you the standard array of columns, which is growing by leaps and bounds, but not always the way I want or need.

Add a few new columns and name them:

When you export to a codebook, your comments are broken out by category making it really easy to do a search for sound problems and not having to sift thru ancillary comments.

As a side note, this blog always has some great tips and tricks. So put it in your RSS feed, sit back, and enjoy.

Deconstructing Film

12 02 2008

I don’t want this to sound too film study-ish and all but for those of you who weren’t able to catch the Wooster Group’s performance piece HAMLET, which just finished its run at REDCAT, you missed an amazing study in film editing.

That’s right — film editing.

I’m going to talk about this by taking a diversion — into the Getty Museum. Viola diptych 2Back in 2003, the Getty mounted a show by Bill Viola called PASSION. The work used very high speed camera to record actors going through varying emotions. Because the footage was shot super high speed, the characters moved in e-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y s-l-o-w m-o-t-i-o-n. What this means is that you got to see the characters at every stage of their emotional moment. Though you could barely see them move, so slow was the motion, you could study their eyes, body and inner life. You noticed that it changed, you just couldn’t tell when.

So, what does this have to do with editing, you ask? One of the rooms had a series of very large video monitors positioned around each other (you can see two of them next to each other on the right). The fascinating thing that I noticed as I looked at the work for minute after minute is that, because the characters turned as they emoted, their positions relative to each other also changed.

In editing, I believe in something that I’ve dubbed the Rule of Threes (which I talk about in THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT), which basically says that the impact of a shot is completely dependent on the shot that came before it and will inevitably effect the shot that comes after it. No shot lives alone. Looking at two different shots placed physically side-by-side (as opposed to temporally, the way we normally work in film) increased that rule even more. Mike Figgis, in his film TIMECODE, experimented with this, by placing four separate stories on a quad split screen. The television series 24 does the same with its copious use of picture-in-picture. But it was this side-by-side placement of a number of hyper-slow depictions of characters emoting that brought the feeling home.

So, finally, what does this have to do with Hamlet? (which you should rush right out and see if you like avant garde theatre and if it ever plays again in your neck of the woods)

The Wooster Group’s play takes a 1964 (note, I changed this, on February 23, 2013, from my original incorrect year) presentation of HAMLET, directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton. The theater piece was recorded by 27 cameras, according to the program notes, for a television presentation on two nights only. After that, the film was put away.

Until now.

The original television presentation in the play dominates one large projection screen in the upstage center of the theater. As it runs, the Wooster Group performs the play in perfect sync (more or less) with that original performance. But there is so much more to it than that. Hamlet, played by Scott Shepherd, interacts with the playback — sometimes telling the unseen tech crew to “fast forward to that dagger scene” or “we don’t need this.” The video behind him responds to his commands, the ever present word PLAY that sits on the upper left corner of the screen (mimicking, in a unreal sort of manner, a VCR playback unit) is replaced by the letters “FF” and the screen squiggles as if it is a tape being shuttled forward.

At other times, there are jump cuts in the footage which the actors on stage must mimic by moving their bodies jerkily. In many other portions of the film, characters have been digitally erased, though the actors performing those roles continue on (right in front of our eyes) copying the performance of the 1962 actors which can be seen on a number of cue monitors set up around the stage. In some cases, the footage is replaced by the Final Cut blue Unrendered screen (and, though the 1962 soundtrack continues, it is joined by the beeping that is associated with mismatched sound files in Final Cut).

In a particularly brilliant and inspired process, the stage actors recreate the concepts of camera dollies by moving themselves, the furniture and their props forward or backward on the stage. As the camera in the 1962 production moves out and to the right, all of the live actors on stage take several steps backward and shift to their rights, dragging tables and chairs with them. The result? The play audience becomes hyper aware of the moving camera.

In short, this is a play that makes us think about how movies work. It is Hamlet, deconstructed, in much the same way that Bill Viola’s PASSION, took apart the power of the edit to relate emotion. But it is not Hamlet that is really being analyzed here, it is a film of Hamlet and our perceptions of film as reality.

And while that may sound all Cinema School, for anyone who has ever edited intensely, you will recognize what is happening here. As an editor we must figure out, either subconsciously or consciously, how a particular edit will work with an audience. In this HAMLET we are asked to look at the way in which this television production has been put together — with its jump cuts, dolly movies, and actors — and internalize the technique while we listen to Shakespeare’s words.

It’s brilliant and a thrilling 2-3/4 hours of theatre.

The Art and History of Editing

12 02 2008

On the blog Testdiffcount50097, there is an obituary for film editor Jim Lyons who died last April at the age of 47. The entry speaks very eloquently about the history of editing.

The loss of respect for the craft of editing is something that many old timers in the television and film business have mourned since the birth of digital non-linear editing. “There was a time…” I was told from my very first job as an assistant editor, “When you spent years as an apprentice, organizing the trim bin, syncing dailies, and then maybe –if you were fast, respectful and good– you’d get a chance to cut a scene.”

The point was not to “haze” the next generation of dues-paying wannabe editors, but to recognize that the editing stage of filmmaking was seen as a true artform in and of itself; that to become an editor meant you were taking part in a set of traditions and practices that were part of the pre-industrial age, like becoming a shoe-maker. There was a Guild that you belonged to; you had to learn an approach to the work from the generation before you. And that just working as an apprentice alongside a mentor was how you’d develop an appreciation for the things you can’t learn in film school: pacing, using long shots versus close ups, what to look for as you screen dailies, how to develop dramatic arcs, where to cut to achieve the maximum impact and emotional power,” and so on and so forth.

Editing has, in some people’s eyes, grown in stature in the industry, at the same time that it has been devalued in the public’s eye. To some, this is a result of two things — the easy availability of digital editing systems which give the feeling that anyone can do it (see my entry on “Edit At Home — Without Talent!!“), and secondly the misperception on the public’s part about what we do (see my entry on “We Cut Out The Dirty Parts“). My students at USC go into the industry in one of two ways, generally. They can enter as an assistant (or a Post Production PA) on a higher-budget project, or they can begin editing a super low budget one. In addition, many of them have come to us already having edited a number of their own films — normally with very little professional guidance, if any.

What this means is that there is very little sense of the history of editing, the shaping of story telling, and the art form that it can be. Instead, much of editing is about matching action, and making cool cuts. Lyons, who did much of his work with Todd Haynes, would surely have not forgotten those things.

There are also two quote from Lyons from an interview at the Manhattan Edit Workshop. I thought they bore repeating.

“If you think there’s one way to cut a scene and that’s the [only] way to do it, you’re screwed. You’ve got to have 10 ways to cut a scene that are all good in different ways.”


“Cinema is there to capture the things that you can’t articulate. That’s what’s beautiful about it. You can be a poet and use words brilliantly…but with cinema, you can capture those things in time.”

An excerpt from that interview is available on the MEW website. It’s difficult to find but click on the link for “VAULT”. Then once the endless intro movie finished, click on the film clip which is the second from the right on the top row of clips.

Shaping Scenes — even if by accident

10 02 2008

Cristian Mungiu directed the Cannes sensation 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS. This is a film that had me scratching my head during most of it. The direction is so formalist (virtually every scene is done in a single shot master) that, for me, it undercut the emotion of the characters. Many critics disagreed with me though, oddly, the Foreign Film Branch of the Academy pointedly omitted the film from its list of nominees this year.

Despite the rigidity of the direction, however, a great example of editing did come through and Sean Axmaker, in an interview with Mungiu on his blog, highlights it in a very interesting way.

There’s one scene in particular that stick out stylistically, with the two girls talking to Bebe in the hotel room, which is the only scene where you actually cut in the middle of a scene. You cut from the two-shot of Otilia and Bebe to a close-up of Gabita, where she realizes the gravity of the situation and what’s really at stake for Otilia and she tries, late as it is, to take the responsibility upon herself.

Honestly, you are the first person to identify something which is a mistake in the film. That was not supposed to be like that, I can’t claim that I have an explanation for this. It only happened because I changed the dialogue that Bebe had to say and I needed to have it off-camera, that’s all. I don’t have an explanation for this. It doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t happen like this.

So, in order to solve a storytelling problem he chose to break his formalistic structure. That happens all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a film where we could afford to be dogmatic and rigid in our structure (is that where they got the term Dogme for that filmmaking manifesto?) (and that’s a joke, by the way)

However, the next question and answer is particularly revealing.

I feel that, because it’s the only time you cut in the middle of a scene, and it abruptly jumps into a big close-up, it brings the scene to her in a very powerful way.

This is why I hope that this is why I decided that I will change the dialogue and go for this, but this is not what triggered the decision. What I wanted to do was to make sure that I never make a formal decision belonging to me as an author and not divide from what the characters do in the shot. If you watch the film from this perspective, you will see that there is no pan in the film unless there is a line by some other character or there is a movement in the shot triggering the camera into a specific direction. We were very much following what was happening in the scene, except in this scene.

In other words, despite his claim that he would never make a formalistic decision separate from what the characters would do, if it wasn’t for the fact that he had to cut to her in order to change the dialogue, he would have blown off the possibility of emphasizing her emotion in that moment.

I understand that there are many ways of emphasizing character and plot moments beside editing. In fact, my upcoming book, THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, is all about that. So I don’t think that he needed to make a cut all of the time. But this is a perfect example of form leading function, and it seems wrong in my mind. It also drives home, perhaps, why I didn’t respond to the film — since the decisions seems to be based on form rather than the individual storytelling needs of a moment.