Always Renting

1 02 2013

Just the other day, I got word that my wife and I will have to be moving again from our house. We’re renters (something I’ve stupidly held on to since my days in New York — where it seems everybody rents) and when we moved into our new house two years ago, we settled on a two year lease. We knew our landlord could raise the rent big time (not a good thing for a teacher), or sell the house.

In short, we’ve known every day that we’ve been in our house that we might have to move — sooner rather than later.

As I thought about this it occurred to me that this sense of never getting comfortable in this place was very familiar to me. It’s the world that most of us live in, as freelancers. And, to a larger degree, it is the feeling that all of us should have before we get comfortable with any technology or workflow. We are simply renting here, and the chances are great that our jobs are going to end and the technology will evolve before we are really prepared for it.

In that way, the best thing that we can do in our business is to get used to the idea that things will be constantly changing.

I can say this because I spent my entire life, before coming to USC’s film school, as a freelancer. My average job ran about nine or ten months (HAIR and THE COTTON CLUB went on for 18 months, but those were real rarities). When I took a job, I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew that my life was going to be made up of simultaneously working and looking for work. On top of that, early on I knew that the skills I was learning as an assistant editor would be only slightly helpful when I moved up to being an editor.

You not only have to get used to that, you have to embrace that.

Today, of course, it’s even more prevalent. My wife, who is a career advisor and counselor and has helped many people who are in transition or crisis, told me 15 years ago that the typical worker in the 21st century would not only change jobs frequently, but change careers several times in his or her lifetime.

I thought about this the other day as I was doing an interview regarding the software that we use in our editing curriculum at USC. Who knows if Avid or Final Cut or Premiere is even going to be with us in five years? The only thing I know is that, if they are and if we are still using them, they will be doing different things and look and work differently than they do now. Otherwise, they surely Will Be Gone. A mere two years ago, the concept of a DIT must have seemed weird and alien to most on-set personnel. Now those job are evolving every month and the phrase “The DIT is asking for an umbrella” no longer elicits odd looks on set.

In a webinar that I did for Moviola, I said that one of the jobs of most people in our industry is R&D – research and personal development – and that we’ll have to spend around 1/4 of our weekly time unpaid teaching us new equipment, new workflows, new technology, new thought processes, etc. Those who won’t do that, and those who won’t do it until someone pays us to do it, are going to have the unfortunate job title of “Unemployed.”

Needless to say, this was not a popular statement, but it’s true. Sure, I can hide behind the fact that I can tell stories really well, but on the project I’m working on now, I’m creating an opening that requires that I know a set of plug-ins, and ways to manipulate images in new ways in order to get my storytelling ideas across. Those quick flashes to white are so 1980.

In that way, we are always renting our space on jobs and our currency. There are no editors today who can only know film. There are certainly no assistants who can get by without knowing sophisticated image manipulation techniques, server technology, codecs and compression details, etc. etc. etc. This is not a world where we can buy a plot of land, erect a house and never repair the boiler.

We are always renting, and I mean that in a good way.

Advice On Boldness From The Best

20 12 2010

Interview with Danny BoyleDeadline Magazine gets mailed to me because the studios take out ridiculous “For Your Consideration” ads and my membership in both the Academy and A.C.E. makes me desirable — at least for eight weeks or so every year. I like reading some of the articles, especially because they do interviews with people who they consider Oscar contenders — every issue focuses on a different category.

The latest issue is about directors and there are two interviews with interesting quotes — one from Danny Boyle, director of the stunningly directed 127 HOURS, and Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu, director of the haunting BIUTIFUL.  Both of them give advice to filmmakers about following their passion. Interestingly, I think this is great advice to anyone who is working on a piece of art — whether as a director, producer, actor, editor, cinematographer, sound designer or whatever.

In Mike Fleming’s interview with Danny Boyle, the director says:

“Beyond persistence, the only advice I ever give to young filmmakers is, ‘Don’t be shy in the way you tell a story. Be bold.’ There is that great quote, ‘Boldness has genius in it.’ People forgive you many things if you remember that.”

Fleming interviews Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and he says:

“We are not machinery. These things are individual expression, themes with original ideas. We may fail sometimes, but we attempt to move things forward.”

There are many types of boldness — in your work and in your work life — and both are rewarded (though to different degrees, depending on circumstances).  The boldness that Boyle talks about is obvious in his own films. And, yet, Inarritu hints at something much more. We are not machines and we often cannot be held back. But to push on our own envelopes require a boldness that is quite scary at times.

I remember when I was a music editor, back in New York City.  I was doing rather well, and had developed a reputation that was getting me offers on some great films – SOPHIE’S CHOICE, FAME, THE COTTON CLUB and more. I was having a great time and working with top notch people, but I had always wanted to edit picture.  I was extremely comfortable as a music editor, but I thought I wanted more.

It took some large degree of boldness, prompted by my wife, to give up the security (and, let’s be honest, the ego) of being a top-notch music editor. It meant starting back at the bottom. It meant admitting that I wasn’t the best at what I did — far from it. It meant giving up some financial security. Ultimately, it meant moving from New York City to Los Angeles.

But those first steps led me to where I am today — and very happy at being here.

That same kind of boldness is what makes directors like Inarritu and Boyle so exciting to watch. It is what clearly inspires the directors who admire the most — Stanley Kubrick, Francis Coppola, Jean-Luc Godard (I just saw BREATHLESS again, on a big screen in New York, and it is a stunning piece of work, even today when that sort of filmmaking has been done to death), Hal Ashby and several more. Because the reality is that there are more than enough people out there who are willing to do “just enough” to be good.  But it takes an ability to move outside your comfort zone to exceed.

Years later, people don’t remember Stanley Donen’s crappy films. They remember SINGING IN THE RAIN, because of its boldness. HIGH NOON is remembered for its stunning characterizations, use of music and montage and its sheer boldness in design. I don’t profess to know what will last from among this year’s crop of films. But my guess it will be more along the lines of INCEPTION than HOW DO YOU KNOW? (sorry for that catty comment, but you know what I mean).

Just a guess.

As an artist, you owe yourself a chance to be both responsible and irresponsible, at times. Boldness for boldness’ sake is not a virtue, but fear isn’t either.

2 10 2010

The death this week of Arthur Penn, the great film, theater and television director, brought back some memories. I worked as a music editor with him on three films – FOUR FRIENDS, TARGET and DEAD OF WINTER and felt him an amazing collaborator, along with his long-time sidekick Gene Lasko, and a gentle man.

One of the first things I learned from him, though, has very little to do with music, but everything to do with how films grow organically and how none of us can know everything.

Craig Wasson, Michael Huddleston and Jim Metzler from FOUR FRIENDS (Courtesy Festivalblog)

It was on the set of the film FOUR FRIENDS, which we shot in the Chicago area. One of the very first days of shooting was a night shoot in which the four high school friends, living in the mid-1960s, met in the middle of a suburban street, approaching each other from opposite sides of the street.

Arthur, who by this time had directed ten films (including the amazing works BONNIE AND CLYDE, ALICE’S RESTAURANT, MICKEY ONE, and THE MIRACLE WORKER), a few TV movies, and something like three dozen episodes of television shows, set up the first master shot so that it followed three of the characters as they danced down the street playing the New World, until they stopped — out of breath.

As the music editor on the film, one of my responsibilities on the film was to work with the four actors so they knew their musical parts (we were recording live, even though we would eventually replace the music in post) and could play it together. I watched as Arthur set up that first wide shot, and worked it until we got it done. We followed two of the characters down the street, as they played a bit from Dvorak’s New World Symphony on their instruments with the other two — who were off camera for most of the shot. Eventually, the camera (which was on Garrett Brown’s Steadicam) moved to the center of the street as the shot turned into a four shot, with the four friends playing to each other. (I should mention that Jodi Thelen’s character was named Georgia, and they all had a major crush on her in some way — hence the choice of the piece by screenwriter Steve Tesich).

After getting a good take on that first master shot, Arthur proceeded to line up the camera for the first piece of coverage. He and the d.p. (Oscar winner Ghislain Cloquet) walked around for a bit with their director’s viewfinders, setting up the shot until Arthur finally looked up and told the first assistant director, Cheryl Downey, that he had actually set up the first (Steadicam) shot incorrectly. Instead of ending up in the middle of the street pointing to the four characters, he really should have ended up with the camera on the sidewalk, pointing to the opposite side of the street for the characters’ four shot.

In other words, the shot we had spent forever setting up and getting would have to be redone.

Arthur looked around, apologized to the crew, and we all went out and prepped for the revised master shot.  Which we got in record time. Happily.

Now, the point that I’m making isn’t that even a director of Penn’s stature can make a mistake. We are all human, and we all can make mistakes. No, what I’m pointing out is that the genius of Arthur leading this crew and allowing himself the ability to discover the best filmmaking approach as the film develops.  Despite an amazing career, a great cinematographer, and a professional crew surrounding him, Arthur learned something about the scene and wasn’t afraid to take his lumps in front of the crew as he admitted it.

He learned as he shot. And that is an amazing ability. In my book THE FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK, I said it myself (I believe in the first or second edition). I have never had a job in which I didn’t learn something. When I get to the place where I stop learning, it’s time to quit.

There was another time when I found myself amazed at something that Arthur did on that film. We were shooting a scene in which a group of high school students, in an auditorium, stormed the stage during an Army recruiting speech, singing “Hit The Road Jack.” We were shooting coverage onto the audience and Arthur put the camera on a very short dolly track and as the students came up to the front of the stage he pushed in ever so slightly. It didn’t look like much on the stage where we were all standing behind the camera. In fact, it didn’t even look so impressive the next night when we all watched it in dailies.

But, several months later, when I saw the scene as editor Barry Malkin had cut it, as I was smoothing out the music for a screening, that short little dolly move took my breath away. Even on my tiny 35mm Moviola screen.

FOUR FRIENDS came and went relatively quickly, but I learned several things about learning from Arthur Penn on that movie — I learned to question my own assumptions — that shot that I was sure wasn’t that impressive turned out to be just right. And I also learned how to act when something I learned changed my thinking in front of my collaborators. It’s never too late to learn, I learned. It’s only when we stop learning that it comes “too late.”

Labor Day, Unions and Me

15 09 2010

It was Labor Day in the United States a few Mondays ago and this seems like a natural time for me to talk about what film unions have done in the scope of my career.

I remember, one day when I was working as an assistant editor on a documentary that was struggling to meet a crazy and imminent deadline, its producer pulled me aside and complained that the overtime pay that I was going to make working that weekend was going to make it difficult for his company to turn a profit on the program. Now, let’s leave aside the reality that he was probably making about 25 times what I was making on the film. And let’s also leave aside the reality that I didn’t create his schedule or his lateness with “locking the picture” (this means finishing the editing so you can hand it over to the sound editing team and the composer).

Nope, what galled me about his attitude was that he felt that he had every right to suck away my weekend so that he could finish his film. Without so much as a thank you.

Late nights, weekend work, and crazed deadlines are (unfortunately) a reality in the film business. There never seems to be enough money to do a film right, until there’s not enough time to do it at all. And then all of the stops are pulled out — mixing stages are kept open on Saturday and Sundays, extra visual effects teams are added, and more studio executives tend to show up at all hours to “help solve problems.”

So I’m not complaining about the hours and the overtime. That’s just a part of life.

What I do object to — then and now — is that this producer felt that we should be invested enough in that film to add extra work into the project without any extra compensation whatsoever.  It wasn’t in my original contract discussions with him, and it had never occurred to him to mention it until the day before that weekend.

On that film, however, we had a union contract and I was able to tell him — “If you want to take away my weekend, you can. But that’s why the extra overtime pay is called ‘penalty time.’”  On a film without a contract, I wouldn’t have been so lucky.

I’m not blind.  I know that large unions can become as oppressive as large companies. I also have heard the cliché of on-set regulations so restrictive that tables couldn’t be moved because the crew was waiting for a grip to come back from the bathroom.  I’ve heard about those situations, but I’ve never actually been on a film like that. But I’m sure they exist — on very rare occasions. On most sets, everybody takes pride in pitching in to help — so long as it doesn’t take away from their own job (which is a very crucial distinction to anyone trying to make a deadline).

But I know that the constant struggle between those who get paid and those who pay us is often won by the people with the most clout, and that is rarely the workers. Most of us are normal people who are trying to make enough money to support families and take them out to eat once every few weeks or so. (There’s actually a great blog, written by a woman who writes under the pen name Peggy Archer, called Totally Unauthorized, which documents her life  as a set lighting technician, and it’s a great read for everyone who thinks that filmmaking is all about glamour and lush parties.) If we often feel that we could use some help, every now and then, at getting a tiny bit more leverage in that struggle, who can blame us?

So, I’ve always been a fan of unions, even when they get too excessive. There are people on both coasts who felt a few years ago, for instance, that the Screen Actors Guild has gotten entirely too caught up in its own politics to see the overall industry picture. They feel that SAG would rather bring everyone else in the industry down with them, in order to make their own points. Frankly, I am not one of those people, but that’s not really my point at all. My point is that the excesses of a union are usually a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the excesses of the studios.

So, on this Labor Day weekend, it’s helpful to remember that film unions are neither pro-film or anti-film. They were formed originally to be pro-people-who-work-in-film.

For all of you who want to be good editors and good filmmakers, we want to ally ourselves with good producers, good studio people and good and healthy business practices. And, sometimes, a little help from our unions is vastly appreciated.


One side note here and it’s going to be a bit of a rant.  My apologies. If ranting is too much for you today, please skip the rest of this post and return next time.  Please.

On every film that I’ve worked on, I got completely involved and treated the film as if it was my own.  I got invested in more than just the editing of the film, but its very creation.  So, I’m not stepping back from involvement in a film. But the reality is that those films were never my films! There is no way that I could possibly reap the benefits of the great successes in the same emotional ownership way as the producer, director, writer and actors. I was as much a part of the filmmaking process as most of them, but they weren’t my films.

It’s always amused me that the producers or directors on the lowest budgeted films, were often the ones who expected every single person on the film to give as much sweat, blood and overtime as they did. And while I’ve seen them thank their editors, cinematographers, production designers etc. at the premieres, I never saw them hand them an equal amount of credit as they took for themselves (justifiably, by the way — they were usually there for years before a single frame rolled through the film cameras).

I understand why it’s difficult for them to believe that not everyone thinks that their films are the most incredible working and creative opportunity, but it just ain’t so.  We need our directors and producers to be the most passionate members of the team. They lead us. But the other side of the coin for this is that our desire to head home to our families might be a little stronger than theirs at the end of every day.

It doesn’t mean that we don’t give 150%. It just means that we can’t give the 1,000% that they are expected (and want) to give.

And that’s why having a union to protect us from that 1,000% level of commitment is a great thing for the Rest of Us.

Rant over.  We now return you to your lives, which are already in progress.


Oh, okay, I lied.  One more note.

After I finished the above entry, I was surfing around the Web (Hmmm, “surfing”.  Does anyone say that anymore?) and I reading Peggy Archer’s blog I was talking about above, “Totally Unauthorized.” She has a rather depressing, but realistic and open, discussion about workers in the film craft and how they’ve been affected by the slowdown in Los Angeles film production. I don’t recommend reading it if you are just starting out in the industry because 1) it’s depressing and 2) you will be moving up in a very different world than Peggy and myself did. Your work outlook will be different, and the way in which you get and keep work will also be different.  This is a Very Good Thing, and you should pursue that path. And then you will definitely survive.

Mama Don’t Take My Kodachrome Away

23 06 2009

In a brief article/obituary today, the New York Times related the announcement by Kodak that they have stopped production on their iconic film stock Kodachrome.

Made famous by its sheer ubiquity long before Paul Simon sung about how it gave ‘nice bright colors’ Kodachrome was, for some in my family, a synonym for ‘camera.’. As in “Hey, could you hand me my Kodachrome from the table there.”

In this age of super-cheap digital cameras and Flip Minos I’m not going to mourn this chemical technology. But it’s always interesting when an icon, like Fidel Castro, steps down.

I’ll Be Up At Macworld

23 12 2008

Im speaking at next months Macworld, up in San Francisco

I'm speaking at next month's Macworld, up in San Francisco

Macworld is the annual get together that is held up in San Francisco. While it’s been rocked by Apple’s announcement two weeks ago that not only would Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, not deliver his customary keynote address at the show and that Apple would pull out as an on-the-floor exhibitor beginning in 2010, it’s still a collection of some really interesting people.

Because Final Cut is a large part of the Mac experience, the publisher of my new book, Peachpit Press, has an exhibit on the floor at which a number of their authors will be giving talks about Final Cut, Photoshop, visual effects and (if I have anything to say about) storytelling. So, for those of you who are planning on attending the show and who would like to hear some people talk about subjects that they are very passionate about, please stop by the Peachpit booth.

I’ll be talking about THE LEAN FORWARD MOMENT — a book about how to shape your storytelling abilities through writing, directing, cinematography, editing, production design, sound and music — on Thursday, January 8th, from 12noon until 12:45.  I’ll also be signing books afterwards. Preceding me will be Mark Christiansen, whose knowledge and expertise with visual effects continually stuns me.  I hope to see you there.


I am also going to take the Macworld opportunity to stop in on my first LAFCPUG Supermeet. For any of you who are interested in filmmaking, in general, and editing in particular, the LA Final Cut Pro Users Group is a great organization with an amazingly deep website, and monthly meetings that attract some of the most interesting and talented FCP users and gurus (such as Larry Jordan, Ken Stone and Phil Hodgetts). Their annual Supermeets are huge affairs, with tons of speakers, raffle prizes, and knowledge.  This year, LAFCPUG head Mike Horton promises the following at this Wednesday night event:

Apple: The latest on Final Cut Studio – JVC: Craig Yanagi of JVC will announce the world’s first acquisition product developed especially for Final Cut post production. Come and be a part of this historic event.

BlackMagic Design presents M. Dot Strange.

Bruce Nazarian: Blu-Ray on the Cheap. How to build a compatible Blu-Ray Disk and burn it on DVD-R media without a Blu-Ray burner.

Christine Steele: FCP Tips and Tricks

Eric Escobar: “Plug-Ins Won’t Save You” A plug-in package alone won’t create the “look” of your movie. A “look” is a combination of preproduction, design, performance, camera work and post wizardry. Eric will show us how to deconstruct a “look” from a TV show or movie, and reconstruct it on-the-cheap.

Yun Suh: Clips from the documentary film “City of Borders” (Show and Tell)

Rounding out the evening will be the always raucous “World Famous Raffle” with over $40,000.00 worth of prizes to be handed out to several lucky winners. 300 “SuperBag” Goodie Bags filled with over $200.00 worth of learning resources will be handed to the first 300 people through the door. Food (snacks) and drinks will be available throughout the evening.

For complete details on the SuperMeet including driving and transit directions and instructions, a current list of raffle prizes and a link to where to buy tickets, visit the Los Angeles Final Cut Pro (lafcpug) web site.

I’m Writing A New Blog — Too

4 07 2008

Film Industry BloggersA few weeks ago, I started posting a weekly column on Richard Janes’ new blog, Film Industry Bloogers. It’s a pretty cool concept, just in its germinating stages, where filmmaking professionals from across a wide spectrum publish their thoughts, on a more or less weekly schedule. Each Friday, my musings go up — along with those of the following:

The Animation Prod. Coordinator – Christine Deitner
The Documentary Producer – Amy Janes
The Editor – Norman Hollyn
The Reality TV Producer – Top Secret
The Web Producer –Chad Williams

Each day, Monday through Saturday, a different assortment of writers takes their crack at explaining just what their lives are like including people like Noah Kadner (the “Digital Expert”), Jen McGowan, an independent filmmaker, Brian Trenchard Smith (a genre director), and many many more.

Surf on over there and check it out. And give us feedback. We can use it.

Self-Serving Announcement

18 05 2008

Digital Production BuzzYou’ve heard me talk about Larry Jordan and Mike Horton’s Digital Production Buzz radio show/podcast (actually, I’ve never heard it on the radio in real time; I listen to it every week in my car driving to or from work — thanks to the podcast version of the show).

Well, this week Larry and Mike are interviewing me on the show. I’m not quite sure just what they’ll find so interesting, but I know I can trust them to do it. For those of you who are interested in what I sound like with a cold, tune in on Thursday from 6-7 Pacific time (you can hear it live on their site right here). And just to make it even more interesting for you, they also promise to interview Patrick Nugent from Roxio about the new Toast, and editor Michael Jones. That interview is described thusly on their web site:

Michael Jones was the editor for the revival of “Banana Splits” for Warner Brothers. Shot in Australia, Michael developed an intriguing on-set editing workflow using Final Cut Pro and it’s multicam feature to show the director what they shot almost as soon as the scene was over. Listen as he describes his new workflow.

Listen early and listen often.


To listen to the finished show, go to this archive page for the Buzz May 22nd show.

On the Power Of Stopping

20 01 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’ll Be At Sundance — Call Me, Write Me

11 01 2008

As I may have said before (well, actually, I know that I’ve mentioned it, but we’re trying to set up a smooth introductory sentence here) (and now I’ve screwed it all up).

Oh, hell, let me start again.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ll be at the Sundance Film Festival this year, doing a Friday afternoon (4:30pm) workshop on Storytelling and Low Budget Filmmaking With High-Budget Values. I’ll be at the festival from Thursday night, January 17th through Sunday afternoon, January 20th.

One of the things that I love about the festival is the possibility of meeting lots of new people. Another things that I like is beer. Combine the two of them, and you get a great film festival (there have actually been some Sundances where I didn’t see a single film and still had a great time).

If you are going to be there and want to try and get together, send me an email. I’d love to see you.

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