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)


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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Telling Stories Without Getting Hung Up in Technology

16 06 2010

2 Reel Guys - a videocast from Larry Jordan and Norman Hollyn

The biggest thing that attracted me to teach at USC full time, when I started there eight years ago, was the fact that the Dean told me that our mission was not to teach better toys (though we certainly have to teach technology) but to teach better storytelling.

I don’t know a single filmmaker who thinks that their job is to play with technology. Ask any cinematographer, editor, sound designer, production designer, actor, producer, director, etc. what they do for a living — and they’ll tell you that they’re storytellers.

So, it’s been a great disappointment that there is about fifty times more web content about what buttons you’d push then why you’d push those buttons. Sure, I learn a lot from video tutorials — I watch them all the time. I learn a ton from casts like Film Riot and Avid Screencast, as well as videos from Larry Jordan, Ripple Training, Lynda and more. But it pained me that there is so little out there about why you’d use a certain lens to tell a story, what costume designers do to help a script, how silence and sound work to push the meaning of a script, and more.

About a year ago, Larry Jordan (FCP guru, trainer and co-host of the necessary-to-listen-t0 show The Digital Production Buzz) and I were talking about working together, and it occurred to me that, together, we could create just such a videocast. Now, Larry is way more comfortable in front of a camera than I am, but I’ve been doing teaching and speaking for years, and had developed a number of very teachable concepts about story construction that I’d written about in my book THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT. Surely, we could pool our overlapping talents and come up with something that could help fill that gap.

Well, thanks to the support of Avid Technology, we’ve been able to do just that. We’ve already shot, and are finishing, 20 episodes of a new videocast called 2 Reel Guys in which we talk about the concepts of the Lean Forward Moment in storytelling. Each episode deals with a different aspect of how to use the initial storytelling concepts that we talk about in the first two episodes. Some of the concepts that we deal with (in 6-10 minutes each) include: how to work with actors, how sound design and camera techniques can help enforce the story that you want to tell. We’ll talk about editing, costume design, collaboration and much much more over the run of the series (which will hopefully go beyond these first 20). Starting yesterday, we’ve released the first two episodes of 2 Reel Guys, and we’ll unleash a new episode every two weeks — on the first and the fifteenth of each month. It’s the start of something which is quite exciting to me — bringing the concepts that we’ve been working with and teaching for years — to you; all for the low low cost of nothing.

That’s right. You can leave your wallets at the door (or on your night table, whichever is safer).

Give it a try and leave comments on our website.



Meet Editors, Talk Editing, Have Cocktails

30 05 2010

One of the difficulties that many up and coming editors face in this age of DIY has to do with social connections.  With the size of editing crews down to the bare  minimum, it is hard for people to learn from other editors, and much harder to meet with people who might be able to help them improve their skills and job prospects. When I was starting out, back in the Stone Age of editing (I often joke that I cut my first film on a flip book), I apprenticed for a few years, stood next to some really great editors as an assistant for some years after that, and only then did I start editing. It was a fantastic way to learn all of the skills needed in an editing room — technical, aesthetic and political.

Now, I’m not romanticizing those Good Old Days. The idea that my students (and thousands of You Tubers) don’t have to wait eight years to start editing something on their own is pretty great, considering that they’ve grown up surrounded by edited material in a way that I did not. And my students, for better or worse, have spent 3-5 years experimenting with the form and developing great skills.

Still, the chance to meet and hear really fantastic editors talk about their craft is never to be passed up, as is the chance to have some drinks and pizza with them.  Which is why I am heartily recommending that those of you within driving distance of Manhattan on June 11-12 register today for the upcoming EditFestNY.  This is a 1-1/2 day meetup of editors where we are going to discuss our craft.  There are panels galore, with editors such of features and television, fiction and documentaries.

It starts off on Friday June 11 at 7:15pm with a panel that I am thrilled to be moderating (called with the editors Michael Berenbaum, A.C.E. (Sex and the City 1 and 2), Joe Klotz, A.C.E. (Precious, Junebug),  Andrew Mondshein, A.C.E. (Remember Me, Chocolat, The Sixth Sense),  Susan Morse, A.C.E. (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters), and  Andrew Weisblum, A.C.E. (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Wrestler).  I’m asking each one of these editors to show a scene from a film that inspires them in some way, and the entire panel is going to talk about the clips.  It should be a huge blast.

To get more information about this two-day event (including the guests) and to register, just click on the link at A.C.E., which is sponsoring the event along with the Manhattan Editing Workshop.  Discounts are available for students and for members of a ton of user groups (including any Avid or Final Cut Pro user groups — and since membership in LAFCPUG, for instance, is free you can get the $100 discount just by signing up).  The event promises to give you great access and knowledge all in one friendly weekend — and there’s drinks on Friday night, and pizza and beer on Saturday, so how can you go wrong?



How We Learn and Why We Resist It

4 05 2010

When I first started teaching at USC’s film school some eight years ago a much much wiser person than me told me that there were several things I needed to know in order to teach well.

First, not everybody’s learning curve is the same so you can’t teach  a concept only once. In other words, since everybody is going to learn at different times, you’ve got to structure your teaching so the same thing is taught in several places in several ways because you never know when a student’s teachable moment will be. To most effectively teach many people you need to structure your teaching so you’re teaching concepts from many different perspectives at many different times.

Allied with this is the fact that most people (and this applies particularly to teaching artistic concepts) really learn something only when they need to learn it. It’s why I’ve always believed in project based learning. I can talk about pre-lapped audio all I want, and I can show you examples of it until the cows come home. But most of us aren’t going to really learn it until we need to do it in our own editing in order to push the energy at a cut. I don’t know about you, but I rarely read manuals until after I’ve started playing with a piece of software. Most of my students don’t want to learn how to change the opacity of an effect until they realize that they don’t like the effect that they’ve just created and need to change it. If it can get better with a tweak to the opacity then they will really remember that setting forever. If they don’t need to tweak the opacity, all I can do is bore them with instructions.

The second thing I was told (and this goes with the first points I think), is that you need to tell your audience what they’re going to learn before you teach it, let them know what they’re learning while you’re teaching it, and remind them what they’ve learned after you’ve taught it. It’s reassuring to the learner to understand that there is a new concept being taught and that they’ve learned it. It also gives them three chances to figure out how this new concept works for them.

Third, all teaching is really about entertainment. Most people don’t learn things just because you tell them they need to, any more than they’re going to like swallowing medicine that’s good for them. They have to be involved in the process, and that often happens when they’re entertained in that process. Mary Poppins said it (or sung it, to be precise): “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

I was thinking about these thoughts as I began playing with the latest version of Avid Media Composer — 5.0. It’s not available to everyone right now, but there are a few advantages to running the editing track here at USC, and seeing some software in early stages is one of them.  You’ll all get to play with it soon enough, and you can certainly see enough videos about the new features (there’s one on the Avid web site, and another from a German media site) but one of the most interesting points about the new version is that it changes some of the interface, partially in an attempt to make it more Final Cut Pro-like in that it allows for more direct manipulation of the tools right within the timeline without jumping into various modes.

Naturally, there are editors who are already not liking it.

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Even Orson Welles Makes Mistakes…

29 07 2009

… but you have to be over 40 to know it.

Shane Ross, over at his fantastic blog Little Frog In Hi-Def, has posted an old video in which Orson Welles talks about editing.  It’s an incredibly wise, and short, piece in which, standing over a 16mm flatbed, Welles talks about the musicality of editing and how being in an editing room is “home” for a filmmaker.

“A Moviola is as important as a camera… This is the last stop between the dream in the filmmaker’s head and the public.”

But there’s one big mistake which makes me realize just how divorced he was from the actual mechanics of editing. See if you can spot it.

This does raise the issue of the difference in involvement from the great editors of the past and today, but we’ll talk about that when I see what sort of response I get to this challenge.



The Sundance Film Festival and Me

17 01 2009

sff09-tiles-graphicI’m up at the Sundance Film Festival  where I’ll be speaking on Monday and signing copies of my book on Tuesday.

Here are the details for the Monday afternoon panel:

Monday, January 19, 2009
From 2-3:30 p.m. – New Frontier on Main Street
Topic: MEET THE SUNDANCE FILMMAKERS: HOW THEY FOUND THAT “LEAN FORWARD” MOMENT.
Long time film editor, USC Professor and author Norman Hollyn will moderate a panel with 2009 Sundance filmmakers on a topic loosely based on his book “The Lean Forward Moment: Create Compelling Stories for Film, TV, and the Web.”  Hear directly from directors, producers and editors with films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival about how they find their “lean forward” moments and turn those into compelling stories that entertain millions.

Panelists include:
Jason Stewart, editor of 2009 Sundance Film “World’s Greatest Dad.”
Sterlin Harjo, director/writer of 2009 Sundance Film “Barking Water” and 2007 Sundance Film “Four Sheets to the Wind.”
Ondi Timoner, director/producer of 2009 Sundance Film “We Live in Public” and 2004 Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner “Dig”

I will also be signing copies of the book the next day at Dolly’s Bookstore, right in the heart of Park City at 510 Main Street, from 1:00 to 2:00pm.  That’s on Tuesday, January 20th.  That’s right, watch the inauguration and then come and have me sign a book.



My Favorite Worst Review EVER

17 06 2008

Roger Ebert with his director, Russ MeyerEditors almost NEVER get mentioned in film reviews, unless it’s a chase film with lots and lots of cuts. But allow me to tell you the story of when I got mentioned in a Roger Ebert review.

Yep, I’m practically famous.

Years ago, I worked on a movie called MAD DOG TIME, which was actually tons of fun, and a trip and a half to edit. It starred Jeff Goldblum as a laconic and top mob hit man who, while his mob boss Richard Dreyfuss is out of town (locked up in a funny bin) has to fend off hit man after hit man (including a delicious Gabriel Byrne) while balancing two girlfriends — Diane Lane and Ellen Barkin. It also had small roles by Burt Reynolds, Joey Bishop (the director’s dad), Kyle MacLachlan, Henry Silva, Michael J. Pollard, Billy Idol, and the amazing Gregory Hines.

When it came out it was, to put it kindly, pilloried by most critics, who felt it was too reverential to Tarentino, without having the talent or class of Tarentino.

Now, I have my own feelings about the film, which are far more positive than the reviews. But I did love the mention that I got from Ebert:

Mad Dog Time” is the first movie I have seen that does not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time. Oh, I’ve seen bad movies before. But they usually made me care about how bad they were. Watching “Mad Dog Time” is like waiting for the bus in a city where you’re not sure they have a bus line. …

What were they thinking of? Dreyfuss is the executive producer. He’s been in some good movies. Did he think this was a script? The actors perform their lines like condemned prisoners. The most ethical guy on the production must have been Norman Hollyn, the editor, because he didn’t cut anybody out, and there must have been people willing to do him big favors to get out of this movie

“Mad Dog Time” should be cut into free ukulele picks for the poor.

Now that’s a review that I didn’t show up on my resume!



George Orwell’s Rules For Writers

4 06 2008

George OrwellCrawling around in my old computer files the other day I came across this list of six rules for writers which, sad to say, no longer seem to be on the site from which I stole them (CCSN in Nevada). I reprint them here because the more people who see this, the better place the world will be:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Aside from the fact that I have probably violated all six of these rules during my blogging and writing career, it occurs to me that most of these rules have their equivalent in film and video work (gotta find a better term for what we do) since they basically boil down to this “Treat the reader like an adult and don’t talk down to them.” I find, both at school and professionally, that there is a terrible tendency to over explain or over obfuscate. I know those sound contradictory, but they’re not. I find shots held on way past the point where they’re giving any new information because “the audience needs to get it.” I’ve also found director being deliberately obscure because “I don’t want to pander to common sensibilities.”

Most student movies tend to be too long (I should know, mine were and are, thankfully, not available on the Web — you should see my version of an unproduced Antonin Artaud script) and, often, too obscure. It’s as if the filmmakers were deliberately challenging the audience to be engaged. And, if my own experience is any judge, that is often just what they are doing — saying that “You should come to me, not the other way around.”

Needless to say, I now totally disagree with my earlier self on this. If I have anything at all to say to an audience, I need to make them understand it. Otherwise, why would I even show the film to anyone else other than myself. For me, and for most filmmakers, our works exist as a way to touch other people. Of course, we are constantly struggling with how much to reveal, how clear to be, and how to explain ourselves. But, ultimately, we want to explain ourselves to others.

And so, with apologies to George Orwell, I present my version of his six rules:

  1. Never use a filmic device that has been so overused that it is instantly identifiable.
  2. Never hold on longer on a shot or a scene than you need to in order to deliver its point.
  3. If you don’t need a shot, a line of dialogue, or a scene, always cut it out.
  4. Never use objective shots where you can use subjective ones.
  5. Never be deliberately obscure with a script point, unless you plan to reveal its meaning later (and keeping its meaning to your audience is important to your story telling).
  6. Don’t do anything obnoxiously obvious, garish or horrifying.

Somehow, I don’t expect these rules to go down in history (or even to appear on the CCSN website, like Orwell’s did. But I do think that they’re a start to a discussion about the audience/filmmaker balance.