Looking For Mr. GoodEditor

16 08 2010

Every year, around this time, I get a booklet from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), called “Rules”.  For those of you who wonder just what that AMPAS thing is, let me tell you that it’s the organization that hands out the Oscars every year, and I’ve been a member of the Music Branch ever since I was a music editor lo those many years ago.

Anyway, AMPAS is a rather large and rules-ridden organization that bends over backwards to be fair in its judging of the Academy Awards (which, by the way, is only a small part of what it does — though that is the most income producing part).  My guess is that has something to do with the organization’s history as an invention of the studios. But, now, the main thing that determines which films get nominated for Oscars is usually the result of its members personal tastes.  Nothing more.

[As an aside, I’m thoroughly amused when film critics, bloggers or general conspiracy nuts, tend to create theories about just why certain movies did well or did poorly around the Oscar nominations. I’m IN the organization, and if there is a conspiracy to award certain films awards, I’ve never gotten the memo.]

In order to assure whatever level of impartiality you can get in what is essentially a vote on your own personal tastes, the Academy annually issues this thick (4o page) rulebook.  The rules are relatively innocuous.  Here is one from “Rule Thirteen, Special Rules for the Film Editing Award”:

In accordance with Rule Two Paragraph 5, only film editors who hold principal position credit(s) shall be considered eligible for the Film Editing award.

Pretty controversial, eh?

But this raises the real question for us as to just what constitutes best film editing.

Note that the award is called “Best Film Editing” not “Best Film Editor.”  That’s a crucial difference for me. Editing is truly collaborative, so it’s not really possible to say who made the editorial decisions that result in the film that we see. The editor/s accept this award as representatives for the film’s editing, but there is no editor is the world who would claim that they do all of the decision-making, much though some would want to. So, every year the Editing Branch gets to nominate the five films that they think are best edited, regardless of who edited them. And then the rest of us vote on them.

But how do we choose the films that we think are the best edited?

I’ve long felt that the only real way to give the award would be to make every voter watch all of the dailies* for the film. Honestly, if someone doesn’t know that all we had to work with for a scene were two master shots, how can they understand why we made the choices we did.

Obviously, that’s neither possible nor desirable. Ultimately, it is only the end result that matters.

So, what is “Best Editing”?  In my opinion, it revolves around the following four points, presented here in no particular order:

  • Do we understand and get involved with the story?
  • Do we understand and get involved with the characters?
  • Do we understand and get involved with the ways in which the characters and the story change as the film moves along?
  • Is the film told in the best possible way for its story and its characters?

That’s it.  Seems simple, right? Of course, it’s not. The last point is impossible to know but that is where the individual judgement comes in.  A few years, I loved THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, an intelligently shaped story about a man’s struggle to communicate after a devastating stroke.

Many of my friends felt that it was overly maudlin and a depressing topic.

So, we’re all operating from our own prejudices here. But I felt that, given its subject matter, the film created wonderful ways of reaching inside the lead character and letting the audience understand and get involved in his plight. Its filmmaking changed from claustrophic to more expansive as his world expanded, so it felt that it was told in “the right way.” And I got inside his mind and his story.

Perfect (for me).

Filmmaking is all about shaping story and character (I better believe that — that’s what my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT is all about, how to shape storytelling across all facets of the filmmaking crafts). Film editing is a crucial component in that. So, when I sit down with my final ballot for the Oscars every year, those four questions always rise to the top. And, by the way, they are also four of the five questions that I constantly ask myself as I edit. The first one is “What is this story about?”

But that is another story entirely.  And another post.

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* Dailes, also called “rushes,” is the term for all of the footage that was shot during the production phase of the filmmaking process.

(This post is adapted from an earlier post on another blog)


Collaboration and Why The Auteur Theory Is Bull

10 08 2010

I’m going to admit right here at the outset that I know that I’m distorting the “auteur theory” here, but I’m just doing what most people think that theory says. Ask anyone, even our amazing film students at USC, what the “auteur” theory is, and they’ll tell you that it’s about the supremacy of the director in terms of guiding the vision of a film.

In fact, as I understand it, the auteur theory really says something much more interesting – that, over the course of a number of films, a good director imbues each film (no matter how different) with a recognizable point of view. The difference between an auteur and a journeyman director — common in Hollywood in the Sixties when that French theory came to prominence — is that each film of an auteur becomes inextricably intertwined with that director’s style, vision and personality. A “work-for-hire” director has no such distinctive stamp. In that theory, Michael Bay is as much an auteur as John Ford.

So, the auteur theory really talks about subtleties that are much more visible in retrospect. To some degree, they can’t be consciously added in at the outset. Yet, this theory has somehow become the torch by with which less talented directors tend to destroy their films, as they consciously attempt to force their “personal vision” onto each of their films.

That’s what I understand about the auteur theory. But now I’ll ignore that knowledge go with the second definition – that it’s about the directing imposing a vision on a work.

That auteur theory is bull.

These thoughts were raised by a question that someone asked me on Twitter a little while ago: “How do you deal with a director who has incredibly idiotic ideas?” the questioner asked. Implicit in that question was a second one: “And what do you do when that director forces those dumbnesses onto you?”

I’d like to address that question by looking at it from another angle.

Jeannette Catsoulis New York Times review of Robert Rodriguez’s film SHORTS is Exhibit Number One for me. This is a film in which a number of children live and learn in a town whose main company, Black Box Industries, manufactures one product – the Black Box – which she describes as “a strange, multipurpose gadget that resembles an ebony Rubk’s Cube and can serve as everything form a cheese grater to a solar panel.”

Catsoulis, who didn’t much like the film, boes one to say:

“Concocted by Robert Rodriguez, a kind of filmmaking Black Box (he wrote, directed, edited, produced, photographed, composed some of the music and supervised the visual effects), “Shorts” feels underwritten and overdressed.”

Aside from the fact that I have never particularly liked most of Rodriguez’s films (most of which seem to me to suffer from a love of technique and use shortcuts to character), it seems to me that Catsoulis is accusing the director here of falling in love with his own voice and his own work. It’s an Emperor’s New Clothes sort of story, in which no one wants to tell the King that he’s nearly naked.

[As an aside, Manohla Dargis — in the same paper — off-handedly (and quite nastily, I thought) makes a similar claim on Quentin Tarentino’s last film, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, when she says:

“He has also turned into a bad editor of his own material (his nominal editor, as usual, is Sally Menke,” a comment which manages to insult both the film and a fine editor at the same time (Menke’s been doing this long enough, and worked with enough people, to not take a job if she knows she is going to be treated like a mere pair of hands)]

Directors, listen to me hear — it’s impossible to make a film by yourself. Not every idea you’re going to have is good, and not all good ideas are going to come from you. The best comments I’ve gotten from directors are when they turn to me after viewing my Editor’s Cut and say “Wow, there were some things in there that I never would have thought of myself. Thanks.” Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to use those ideas, but it does mean that the director’s creative juices are going to be kicked up a notch and there will new and better ideas flowing very shortly.

And that is the ideal way to work with any creative person: come to the table with an idea (the “thesis”), let that person come up with a different idea (the “antithesis”) and then to let those two opposing notions contribute to a third, usually better, idea (the “synthesis”). Directors who feel that they are the sole auteurs of their work, and are too afraid or guarded to open up to other ideas, will generally miss out on those “third, usually better” ideas, and their work will suffer. (I talk about this in the latest episode of the podcast that I do with Larry Jordan — 2 Reel Guys — in the episode on Collaboration.)

That’s why the more roles that a creator takes on, the more the work will usually suffer. Being a writer/director is dangerous enough. When you become a writer/director/editor the combination is almost always disastrous.  I’d venture that John Sayles solo films, for instance, were never as good as when he worked with an editor. Even the vaunted Coen Bros have suffered when they edited their own work.

It’s a problem that I’m continually fighting among those talented students at USC. I’d rather they learned how to talk to an editor to bring their ideas to the fore, than edit their film themselves. Simplifying the communication process, in this case by eliminating the editor, doesn’t make for a better film. Creating a common language (such as the one I talk about in my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT) does.

So, to get back to the Twitter question, “How do you deal with a director’s stupid ideas?”

In my opinion, the first thing to realize is that those ideas might not be stupid ideas at all. The fact that they seem stupid to you may say more about you than about the director. You might be jealousy guarding an idea of yours that you’d be better off questioning. Just as we want our directors to be collaborative, it is important for us (as editors) to be open to those “antithesis” ideas.

The second thing to realize is that, even if the ideas are stupid (“Can’t we take every other shot and turn it upside down?”), most directors who have done their homework are coming up with ideas because they are missing something. They aren’t getting the emotional kick from a scene that they wanted. They might not understand a character’s motivation the way that they feel is necessary. Or they might not feel tension or energy or humor. Or, there is more confusion by the end of a commercial than they desire.

The problems are myriad (haha, a very subtle HEATHERS reference there) but the psychology is the same. Unless the director is a complete moron, every idea and question that they have comes from some place. It is the job of the editor to dig below the question/comment and figure out what it is that the director (or producer or showrunner or whoever is in charge of the vision) really wants.

And the third thing is that if the director really is a complete moron, I’d take a look at yourself and ask why you took the job in the first place. I know that there’s always rent that you have to pay, but if that’s the deal that you’ve made with the devil, then you’ve got no business complaining about idiot directors. Life is too short to be working with people who don’t fill you up with artistic and/or emotional fulfillment.

(adapted from an old blog entry on another site)


Just What Can Movie Theaters Charge? And how that’s good for indies.

6 08 2010

A recent article on THE WRAP discusses the very obvious downturn in box office for 3D films. This (they say) doesn’t prove that 3D is a fad but that “not every movie should be in 3D.”

While it’s easy to make broad generalizations based on very little evidence (hell, that’s what I do here, right?), it’s actually much more nuanced than that.

We’ll see what happens to STEP UP 3D this weekend, but we are clearly in the early stages of 3D adoption. I’m inherently skeptical that 3D is ever going to take over the film, tv and web content world, but I’m also waiting to see what will happen to movie 3D if television 3D becomes more popular. Once we become used to 3D on TV, will that make it a requirement in theaters, or will it simply cheapen the concept?

But it was a different sentence entirely that woke me up from this ongoing, every-present, 3D/2D discussion.

Speaking of Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, the article says:

He also thinks exhibitors will have to move away from its age-old, one-size-fits-all pricing model.

“For the first time in a long time, I think you’re going to see some adjustment on that,” he added.

One of the things that may be damaging 3D admissions right now is the three to five dollar admission price premium that theaters are tacking onto their normal ticket prices. While that’s fine for a cool event film, it’s probably going to mean the difference between a Yea or a Nay for a family of five deciding whether to see a film on a weekend. Think about it — with three kids, you’re already laying out over 50 bucks for tickets and another 30 or 40 for food. That’s about $100 before you even think about 3D. Add another 15 to 20 bucks for that incredible stereoscopic experience in CATS AND DOGS and you’ll probably get as many people saying “Nah, I heard that the film wasn’t so good” as say “It’s worth it just to shut the kids up for two hours.”

But Katzenberg’s point is well-taken. We expect that first class air flight is going to cost more than economy. We know that putting premium gas in our tanks will cost us more than regular. Don’t we? Why should we expect that every seat, in every theater in a multiplex, for every movie, will cost the same amount. It’s long been accepted that people going to see the less popular matinee performances of a film will pay less.  Isn’t that just another way of saying that people going to evening films will pay more? If that’s the case, why shouldn’t people who decide not to put on the 3D glasses pay less than those who do?

The key here would be to create a sliding scale for films that better reflects the demand for that experience. Would you pay 15 bucks to see the next HARRY POTTER film?  Perhaps, if you can guarantee me that I won’t have to pay anything more than 9 or 10 bucks to see the latest Nicole Holofcener film. I’m not saying this because PLEASE GIVE isn’t as good a film as the 58th film about Hogwarts School of Magic, but because fewer people want to see it. Think about it — this could be great for small indie films. Incentivise people to see indie films in a theater. Make it cheap to see them on a Wednesday night in a smaller theater without 3D. Make it a great alternative on Saturday night to the 3D/super Dolby-ized, VFX-heavy/big theater Potter and Snape. Then give me the opportunity to upgrade my indie ticket with comfier seats, reserved seats and better placement in the theater.  I’m there for you baby!

I’m not talking about ghetto-izing these films. The success of the Laemmle or Arclight style experience (with comfortable seats, good food and advanced seat reservations) proves that people will pay for value. But your definition of value is almost certainly different than mine. And the next person’s. If lower ticket prices are more important to you than comfy seats, then you should be given the opportunity to act on that. But once you leave behind the idea of one ticket price for every seat in a theater, then you’ve really freed yourself up for some great opportunities to bring people into the theaters, as opposed to driving them away.

The tricky thing here will be to avoid having theater owners gouge their patrons, and to avoid having film distributors gouging theater owners. One valuable service that the defunct, though not lamented, Hollywood Stock Exchange gave was a number which roughly correlated with people’s desire to see a film. AOL’s Moviefone provides similar data. This doesn’t mean that those numbers are always right, but they do lead the way to a pricing model that studios would have to take into account in order for theaters to price their tickets on a sliding scale.

In a world where theaters are competing with the Net for viewers, taking a cue from the web and letting viewers pay for content that they want might not be such a bad idea.



EditFest LA is coming and you can help me out

3 08 2010

This weekend — Friday and Saturday to be precise — a whole boatload of editors are going to meet in Los Angeles, at Universal Studios for a networking/learning/celebratory experience all focused around what we do.

That is, put images together to tell stories.

Some of the panelists this weekend include Ed Abroms, A.C.E. (The Sugarland Express, Blue Thunder), Matt Chessé, A.C.E. (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland), Sally Menke, A.C.E. (Ingourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction), Pam Wise, A.C.E. (Transamerica, The Dancemaker), Jerry Greenberg, A.C.E. (“The French Connection,” “Apocalypse Now”), and Carol Littleton, A.C.E. (“E.T: The Extra Terrestrial,” “Body Heat”). For those of you who attend (there is a fee, which is discounted for pretty much anyone who is a member of practically any editorial organization ever created) you’ll get to hear some amazing speakers as well as have lunch, cocktails and pizza — over the two days, not all at once — with some of the top practitioners in the business.  For those of you who come, it’s really a great opportunity and tickets are limited, so I’d hop on over to the American Cinema Editors home page and learn how to sign up.

But that’s only part of the reason why I’m writing today. I am asking you a favor.  I am moderating a panel titled THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT, in which I’ve asked five amazingly diverse and talented editors to talk about a scene from a film that they did not edit but which inspired them in some way. (For a review of the New York version of this panel, where  Michael Berenbaum, A.C.E (Nurse Jackie!, 2009), Joe Klotz, A.C.E. (Junebug 2005), Andrew Mondshein, A.C.E. (Cold Souls, 2009) , Susan Morse, A.C.E. (Editor of Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986 and Manhattan, 1979) and Andrew Weisblum, A.C.E. (The Wrestler, 2008), just hop on over to the Kirsten Studio blog. It also talks about the other fantastic panels that were at EditFestNY.)

As I said, I’m having five really diverse editors on the panel.  They are:

  1. Zack Arnold (TV, feature and web video editor – “Burn Notice” and “The Bannen Way”)
  2. James Haygood, A.C.E. (feature and TV editor – TRON: LEGACY, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, PANIC ROOM and FIGHT CLUB)
  3. Joe Leonard (TV editor – “Glee”)
  4. Lisa Lassek (TV and Web editor – “Pushing Daisies” and “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”)
  5. Ken Schretzmann (feature editor – TOY STORY 3)

The films that they have chosen are THE CONVERSATION, RAISING ARIZONA, OUT OF SIGHT, MEMENTO and THE GRADUATE. So you can see just how diverse a group this is.

Now, here’s where the favor comes in. During the panel I’m going to be asking for questions for the panelists on Twitter from the audience. But I’d also like to go into the event with some of your questions. So, if there’s some burning questions that you’ve wanted to ask the creative brains behind the editing of features, television and web video, please add them in a comment below. I’ll try and work those questions into the panel on Saturday afternoon.  So even if you’re not there — you’ll be there.

Sort of like INCEPTION, eh?



Filmmaking, Critics and Sound

1 08 2010

A recent podcast from the makers of /film called, oddly enough, /filmcast (you can pronounce the “slash”) gets into the varied opinions and passions around the movie INCEPTION (which I recommend you run right out and see even if you hate it — it’s fascinating filmmaking, even with its faults). Critics David ChenDevindra Hardawar, and Adam Quigley are joined by New York Press film critic and professional curmudgeon Armond White, who argues that INCEPTION was a horrible, shallow, inadequate piece of crap by a filmmaker who shows none of the talent that someone like Michael Bay showed in TRANSFORMERS 2.

I’m not here to argue with his point of view, or anyone’s for that matter.  Though White would strongly disagree, I believe that (at its best) film watching is a visceral experience as much as an intellectual one and, as such, can lead to great divergence of opinions.  There is no absolute right and wrong if a film is really working.

White went to Columbia University’s School of the Arts, receiving his MFA there. This gives him the cudgel that he uses to slap around a mesmerized and overly polite Chen. In fact, he tells all three of these Internet film critics, that he feels that Web film criticism is mostly uninformed and shallow, and that everyone who calls him or herself a film critic should be trained in the profession.  “Professional film critics,” such as himself, it seems, cannot be questioned by people who haven’t been to film school and taken courses where they sit with a Moviola (I’ll deal with this comment in a little bit) so they can examine films frame-by-frame. According to Wikipedia, White calls himself a “pedigreed film scholar,” without much definition of what he means by that broad statement (that statement can be found in a short, not particularly interesting, piece on him in Macleans, a more interesting and substantial read is a New York Magazine piece on him).

Now, I’m not here to support or bash White — plenty of much better writers, who are much more familiar with his work, have taken their shots already. But two comments that he made on /filmcast, as he argued against INCEPTION’s value as a film, strike me as immediately calling into question White’s qualifications, MFA and his “pedigree” claims aside (aside from the obvious one I mentioned above — that he still thinks that the Moviola is a viable tool to examine films frame-by-frame.  Where has he been for a decade?).

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