I’m Not Afraid Of Organization!!

22 02 2010

Shane Hurlbut is known for more than just being the guy on the other end of the Christian Bale shouting match. He is a DP who has been tirelessly touting the value of shooting high-end films using HDSLRs (High DEf still cameras that can also shoot HD video) like the Canon 5D Mark II. In fact, in a recent fxGuide podcast (podcast #56, about half way through) he makes a passionate case for why these cameras will eventually “kill film.” It’s a thought provoking and (frankly) pretty exciting podcast. For those of us who step back from a headlong rush into something new just because it’s new, this will raise some great issues about what earthly use celluloid film really has.

Shane also has an interesting entry on his blog at Hurlbut Visuals, talking about the digital workflow issues that he and his crew dealt with on a recent Navy Seals film (that he also talks extensively about in the podcast). In it he talks about media management, a skill which is sadly lacking in many crews who shoot file based cameras. There is an illusion that, because it’s easy to keep shooting, and because stopping to reload cards “interrupts the creative process” (as if decades worth of shooting 11 minute loads of 35mm couldn’t create good creative films), that media management is an impediment to creative filmmaking. Hurlbut takes the piss out of that one:

The unique skill set that my Elite Team brings is that they all have a film background and are comfortable with certain rituals that accompany being a motion picture film loader and 2nd assistant cameraman.  These include: managing the truck; keeping  track of the gear and specialty pieces of equipment; creating an inventory and log; assessing how many magazines you have to load and color coding it according to the stock; labeling the magazines with the date, job, film stock and amount loaded on the magazine itself; and writing a camera report with the same information.

When I see students of mine with disorganized editing bins, into which they’ve loaded unlabelled takes digitized from tapes that have not been sub-clipped for easy access, it drives me insane. One of the great advantage of digital editing is that it should make it easy to find anything that I need to create a finely edited sequence. If I have to scroll through a ten minute series of takes in order to find the one that I want, it’s going to stop my creativity much quicker than taking the 20 minutes to subclip and label each one of those takes before I edit them.

by the same token, dumping dozens of takes of unslated, unlabelled takes, into my NLE does nothing to help my creativity. And having to hunt through all of the dailies because the production people didn’t bother to create usable camera and sound reports, or script notes, makes the editing process so much more difficult.

One of the things that encouraged me to write my recent book on editing room procedures (THE FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK) was the awareness that filmmakers were wasting countless hours and brain cells because of lack of organization. And that this organization, which we use quite naturally on higher budget films that have assistant editors by the score, was easily adapted to low budget films with no assistants. A little bit of work at the start, saves a whole boatload of work later. And that work is complicated by the fact that the director will be standing over your shoulder while you’re scrolling through a 25 minute clip, looking for the one 50 second take that has the piece he or she wants to look at. Or that opening and clicking through a dozen badly-named sequences, in order to find the version of the cut that you liked from two months ago, is just a really stupid idea.

There are ways to avoid that nonsense and creative DPs like Shane aren’t afraid of them.

And neither should you.

The Eddie Awards — And The Oscars

15 02 2010

The Eddie Award Statue (courtesy A.C.E.)

The A.C.E. Eddie Awards were handed out tonight (see the article at The Hollywood Reporter‘s site) and, as usual, they are very mainstream but also indicative of what Hollywood is thinking this week, as it revs up for the Oscars (ballots are due something like March 2nd, so it’s getting close). Here, in a nutshell, are the winners:

BEST EDITED FEATURE FILM (DRAMATIC): “The Hurt Locker” (Bob Murawski & Chris Innis)
BEST EDITED FEATURE FILM (COMEDY OR MUSICAL): “The Hangover” (Debra Neil-Fisher, A.C.E.)
BEST EDITED DOCUMENTARY: “The Cove” (Geoffrey Richman)
BEST EDITED REALITY SERIES: The Deadliest Catch: “Stay Focused or Die” (Kelly Coskran & Josh Earl)
STUDENT EDITING COMPETITION: Andrew Hellesen, Chapman University

There are a number of things that I could comment on here, including the fact that the reality series winner (the involving “Deadliest Catch”) was edited two editors who aren’t members of ACE. The American Cinema Editors organization (full disclosure here — I became a member last year) is a bunch of really great, but very accomplished editors. Reality television editors are fast becoming a younger breed, who will — of course — not be part of A.C.E. This is a situation which I hope will go away eventually, but that is a discussion for another post.

Let’s talk about the films that won — THE HURT LOCKER, UP and THE HANGOVER.

These were all great films and, as can be expected from this group, were all well edited. THE HANGOVER maintained a great pace and its style all of the way through and Debra Neil-Fisher kept her usual unfailing eye for comedy always open. Kevin Nolting’s work on UP was sure-footed and, considering how involved Pixar editors are with the writing and crafting of the script, his award is not only not surprising but incredibly valued.

But how the hell did THE HURT LOCKER beat out the juggernaut of AVATAR (or the early Oscar favorite UP IN THE AIR)? I don’t mean that in a disparaging way. HURT LOCKER was probably my favorite film of 2009. From the very first scene, it had a sense of tension that more accurately described how the soldiers on the battlefield in Iraq actually feel about being there, than all of the war films since PATHS OF GLORY. In fact, the last time that I can remember feeling that consistently tense was during another Stanley Kubrick film — THE SHINING. That is not an easy thing to do. It requires a perfect combination of performance, camerawork, production design, sound, music and editing — not to mention a script to die for.

THE HURT LOCKER had all of that. And the movie has been a darling among critics as we head down to the Oscars this year.

So it was especially gratifying to see the A.C.E. recognize that consistent, powerful editing, even though there is no doubt that AVATAR had some amazing editors, working in new, uncharted territory, crafting performances from motion captured acting. You could say that it’s the very fact that most of us in A.C.E. are old folks, who go for a more traditional technique. But that’s actually selling the group short. Most of the A.C.E. editors who I’ve spoken to loved AVATAR (as did I). But there is no doubt in my mind that it suffered from the same problems that most other films do — a slowness in the middle, as its characters and plot is redefined.

So, A.C.E. rewarded the more amazingly shaped film. But what does this mean for the Oscars? Well, let’s look at some numbers.

As of the end of 2008. there were 5,829 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that votes on the Oscars. Of them, there were 223 editors, about 4%. The largest branch is the Acting Branch, with 1243 members, about 21%. In my opinion, that’s why the Best Picture Oscar usually goes to the same film that’s won the Best Editor. The actors and actresses (along with the 440 executives, the 369 PR members, and the 254 members at large, who together make up another 12%, for a total of one-third of the potential voters) take a look at a film and say “Yeah, I liked that film. So it must have been well edited.”

And, while that’s true, that doesn’t address the realities that we editors deal with every day in our own editing rooms.

So, what do I think is going to happen this year? Do I think that AVATAR has impressed enough actors, executive, PR people and at-large members, to overcome the extraordinary editing of THE HURT LOCKER? I’ll go out on a limb here and say, “No.” Bob Murawski & Chris Innis’s editing was just that good.

And it doesn’t hurt that the actors branch didn’t think any of the actors in Avatar were worth noting.

The iPad, Film Editing, My Book and Delays

10 02 2010

My book sitting quietly in a Barnes and Noble bookshelf

Long time readers of this blog will realize that it has been a long time — since I’ve posted. There are some very good reasons for that, not the least of which is that my new book was being written, rewritten, rewritten again, and published — all of which required a time sucking amount of work.  All of which I’m thrilled about.

This is the fourth edition of my ancient book on editing room workflow, written originally back before anyone knew what the word “workflow” meant. It is a total page one rewrite and, because I’m not an assistant editor any longer, I had to do a ton of research with assistants (those that are left). I learned a tremendous amount about what assistant editors do today and much of that shows up in the new book. I’ll be dropping some of that on you in the weeks ahead.

Of course, I want each and everyone of you to go out and buy 50 copies each of the book.  But that’s not what I’m interested in talking about today. So, let me go on.

Another reason why this latest posting has been inordinately delayed is that I’ve been editing one or two films. One of them is a great comedy road movie that follows a self-destructive screenwriter as he drives across country accompanied by the young kid who’s been assigned by the film producers to babysit the guy . The film is, I think, going to be loads of fun, but what’s really interesting about it for me is that I’m editing it long distance. My co-editor is in Massachusetts and my director is in Rhode Island.

That means that the three of us are going to spend lots of time shooting copies of our Avid bins back and forth to each other so we can see what each of us are doing. This excites me a lot, but that may be because I’m slightly crazy about the future. A conversation I had a little while back, showed me that not everybody shares this mania.

Last summer, when Final Cut Pro 7 (or whatever they’re calling it) came out, I remember enthusiastically talking to a friend about the iChat Theater function, which allows the editor to play out anything in FCP over an iChat video conference, simply by pointing to it. It’s an easy way to play dailies or your sequence to any of your collaborators. It doesn’t have any of the real interactive functions that would make it a true shared editing platform (I’ll be looking at Fuze soon, which promises much more), but it certainly is a start to long distance communication in the editing process and I was telling my friend about it.

He looked at me horrified and said “I’ve got one word for you — outsourcing.” He was worried about his job going overseas.

“But you’ve got to look at it from the other side,” I told him. “You’re an accomplished Hollywood feature and television editor. There will be plenty of people around the world who would love to work with you. But they haven’t been able to because you live here in Los Angeles and they don’t.”

He agreed that this was possible but then said “A lowering tide lowers all boats. Even if I could get those jobs, my salary is going to go down. Way down.”

Hard to disagree with that.  Welcome to the 21st century. With the collapse of television syndication and the advertising market, the days of 10 month guaranteed jobs for tv editors are going away. As Hollywood moves more and more to large tentpole films, the number of mid-range films is also disappearing and, along with them, a sizable number of cushy mid-level jobs. Those of us who live off of these types of projects are going to have to get used to the fact that our incomes are going to go down, unless we adapt to the new markets.

And, miraculously, those markets are all over the world. What my friend, and all of us, are going to have to do, is to learn to juggle multiple jobs across multiple time zones. Some of us are doing that already. It’s really only the larger job markets that haven’t been doing it. No producer is going to share his/her editor’s time with someone across the globe. But if that same producer is hiring his/her editor for a few months, laying them off, bringing them back on again for a month or two, and then laying them off again — well, they’re going to have to get used to sharing them with the rest of the world.

So working long-distance is going to be a smart thing to learn how to do. And somehow I’ve stumbled right into it.

Apple's new iPad

Then, enter the iPad. I’ve been asked endlessly whether I’m ready to rush out and buy one. Honestly, not really. I’ll wait until the device matures a bit more (just like I waited for the iPhone 3G and am thrilled that I did). However, the possibilities that this new device gives us in the vertical market that is filmmaking are thrilling.

Imagine a producer pitching a project to a studio. Right now they send a script and, perhaps, some accompanying materials, to the studio where (if their readers like it) it is sent home with 50 or so executives to be read over the weekend. This is called, in a predictable burst of studio originality, the “weekend read.” Many studios have moved the weekend read from paper to the Kindle, which saves paper but does nothing to brighten the experience for those poor junior executives.

Now, imagine if you will, that the producer has loaded the script onto an iPad and that there are embedded links within the script to location photos, audition tapes, CAD drawings of sets, and 3D mockups of the worlds that are only hinted at in the script. That is going to be a clearer, more interesting vision of the story for every single one of those bored-to-tears weekend readers. It’s also going to be more helpful to me, when I read a script before an interview, or to an art director as he/she tries to figure out what’s inside of the director’s mind.

And that’s just one single use for this device. If you take a look at the dozens of applications for filmmakers available on the iPhone (Taz Goldstein has a great list, adapted from his recent Supermeet talk, up at his site Handheld Hollywood and, by the way, the Supermeet was a great event, even if I did have to watch it streamed on Ustream — you should go and look at it right now). There are slates galore, some of which even will help you import your footage into your NLE. There’s a very cool application to allow you to remotely control your f-stop settings on your camera. There are director’s viewfinders, storyboard creators, teleprompters and research tools. And that’s for the iPhone.

Imagine what we’ll be able to get with a 10″ screen.

Here’s my point. For years we’ve been on the cusp of something really new and exciting in the filmmaking world. We’ve gone all digital — from capture through editing. We’ve also seen the world of distribution change — so the need to print film for theaters is fast disappearing, and we will be easily distributing to each of the four screens that people watch their entertainment on (see an earlier post of mine about Four Play).

What’s been missing is the ease of getting from this digital creation, to the digital consumption in any way that resembles a realistic viewing format.

The iPad is more than a hint into that future, it’s the door ajar (not fully open yet, but not closed).