Archive for December, 2012

A Head for Comedy and Editing Machines

December 29th, 2012

In 1985 I walked into waiting room – a wide space with chairs in the hallway – of the head of post production’s office at Universal Studios. A dapper 60-something man in a cardigan sat in a chair, patiently waiting for me. He was editor Dann Cahn, my new boss. Thus we began a season together on The New Leave it to Beaver, a show new to both of us, on Ediflex a non-linear, video-tape system new to both of us. Actually “Beaver,” as those of us who worked on it called it non-ironically, was not new to Dann. Executive producer Brian Levant specifically hired Dann because he’d directed and edited on the original series in the 1950s.

Dann with Lucy and Desi Dann with Moviola

Dann and his monster Moviola

at the Hollywood Museum

Dann was a tip top comedy editor, most famous for his time at Desilu, starting with the first episode of I Love Lucy. A lifelong friend of the star couple, Dann created a multi-cam Moviola to match this pioneer sitcom. Dubbed the monster Moviola due to its four heads (three for cutting picture, one for cutting sound), it allowed editors to view all three camera angles of a scene at one time. While the scenes ran, the editor grease penciled cut points for cutting and splicing later.

After meeting in the waiting room
Dann and I received training on our parts of Ediflex: His the editing part and mine the pre- and post- cutting work. While the producers loved how he was putting the shows together, it quickly transpired that he needed help running the editing system. The solution? I operated the system for Dann and an apprentice was hired to do parts of my job. Frankly, I could never learn from watching editors edit; it was boring. But having to anticipate how to execute Dann’s edits on the Ediflex, I not only learned the editor’s side of the system but got into Dann’s head and learned comedy cutting from a master. As things progressed, Dann finessed things so I cut scenes and then shows, getting my first show credit.

This is how things should work in the world of editing (and elsewhere for that matter): The experienced helping the apprentice to learn. Dann earned a reputation before and after me for boosting the careers of many aspiring editors.

Via Facebook, I am in touch with his son, the current president of the Editor’s Guild, who posted that Dann’s final fade out at 89 this November was a smooth transition.

May your transitions in your career as well as to the New Year be as smooth. And may you pay things back as well as forward in your life.

Editing & life, Editing practices, Editor’s role, Jobs

Why you will benefit from sitting through a session of The Sessions

December 19th, 2012

The subject of The Sessions – a paralyzed poet hiring a sex surrogate to lose his virginity – may make you writhe at the thought of a touchy-feely film. Go anyway. While the movie doesn’t have the laughs that Steve Carrell and Katherine Keener served up in The Forty Year Old Virgin, it does deliver a humanness about sex that all of us have felt no matter how abled we are. As I see it, we are all in the dark and isolated, groping for light and connection and hoping for love. And the characters of Mark O’Brien and Cheryl Cohen Greene, played by Robert Hawke and Helen Hunt respectively, are no different.

One on One Movie
The heart of The Sessions throbs with the thoughts and emotions of two people. No one has described cutting such scenes better than Carol Littleton (Body Heat, The SessionsPlaces in the Heart, and The Big Chill and many more): “One-to-one dialogue scenes are difficult because it’s literally about the very thin connection between two people and that connection can’t be violated.  You have to be aware of it all the time.  They may be connecting or not connecting emotionally, but you have to be aware of what’s happening between them the whole time.”

But let’s hear from the editor of The Sessions herself. Lisa Bromwell, A.C.E., wrote in a guest blog in Indiewire on December 5 about the challenge of the movie: “The story of an immobile polio victim living in a big metal box has its own editorial challenges to say the least. For one, it has very little inherent movement. There’s an old editor’s adage that says to make a cut invisible, cut on movement. And I had a main character that could barely move. Big problem.”

Bromwell adds, “Beyond that, there was the tricky issue of getting the tone right. We wanted the audience to be moved by Mark’s journey and touched by the fullness of his life without falling into melodrama. That meant we needed the humor in the script to work without betraying the reality of his disability.”

How did Bromwell solve the problems? She worked with director Ben Lewin, himself a polio victim, moving and eliminating fantasy Mark’s fantasy sequences, adding a VO of him reciting his poetry at the beginning, and making other structuring changes. Regarding structure Bromwell relates, “Ben used time ellipses in the script – right in the middle of an embarrassingly awkward moment with the sex surrogate, we would cut to Mark describing his feelings to his mortified but intrigued priest [played by William Macy]. We realized we could use this device both sooner and more often. As long as we were advancing the story, we could flash forward or back without confusion.”

When female editors are often called for
Steven Spielberg hired in 1982 Carol Littleton to cut E.T. because he believed a Women and Hollywood logofemale editor would bring more humanity to the E.T. character. Things haven’t changed much in 30 years a Lewin also deliberately set out to hire a female editor, Bromwell reports, because he “felt a woman would be more sensitive to the emotionality of the story.” Bromwell reflects, “I don’t know if that’s true – I like a good gunfight as much as any guy. But right or wrong, I think women are perceived as being more nurturing.”

Editors as chefs
Bromwell gives clear insight into a good editor-director relationship when she writes, “Whatever their gender, the editor sees everything – that means all the mistakes as well as every flash of genius. There needs to be a level of security between director and editor so neither censors their thoughts before speaking. It’s often the crazy bad idea that turns out to be brilliant.”

To illustrate her point, Bromwell recounts her experience cooking Chicken Mole Negro one day during her time off: “The multi-page recipe called for nuts and dried fruits and all sorts of fabulous things including peppers so hot you had to handle them with gloves. Finally, after hours of work, the last item you add is chocolate. This sounds like a terrible idea that will ruin the entire thing. But it doesn’t — it’s the key. Just like editing, every little bit counts and sometimes the most unlikely ingredient turns out to be the thing that makes magic.”

Editing & life, Editing practices, Editor’s role, Joy goes to the movies

Grease Pencils to Light Pens to Touch Tablets:
The Technical Evolution of Motion Picture Editing

December 12th, 2012

At last, a diligent soul, one John Buck, has had the passion and taken the time to trace the track of editing from its manual scissors and glue past to its electronic mouse and keyboard present. An Australian editor, Buck writes up the recent fast track decades of technological advances as well as the build-up to them over scores of years in two books under the title: Timeline: A History of Editing.

Cover Volume 1 editdroid

EditDroid: Where Darth Vader appeared

when you tried something it didn’t like.

Volume 1 details the evolutions from 1898-1988, spanning the period from film (nitrate and non) to tape (linear and non).  It contains interviews Buck made of major system inventor-engineers Adrian Ettlinger and Andy Maltz (Ediflex) and others responsible for the development of analogue, tape-based systems such as CMX, Convergence, D-Vision, EditDroid, and Montage.

Cover Volume 2 Lightworks

Lightworks’ unique console

Volume 2 covers the years 1988 to 2000 and the saga of how film and video systems paved the road to today’s currents digital editing tools. It too is chock full of interviews with the key players and prime movers of today’s tools which include: Avid, Final Cut Pro, iMovie, Lightworks, Media 100, and Premiere.

Buck’s book includes the following splendid timeline – decipherable by logo by the end – of editing technology. You can download a high, medium, or low res copy here.


We are indeed indebted to Buck for a contribution to film history that only an editor could make.

Editing practices, History/research, Technical & process

Guest Blog

December 4th, 2012

I received this article from a NY Film Academy teacher. It’s laudable because it explains to eager shooters the importance of editing and why it should be considered from the get go. Thank you John and Anjum Bhardwaj who emailed me the request and article!

When the Cinematographer Thinks Like an Editor
by John Loughlin, Chair of the Cinematography Department/The New York Film Academy

As I work with cinematography students, I sometimes have to break the news to them gently how they will not have the last say on the story.  To be sure, cinematographers play a pivotal and significant New York Film Academy role in the look, feel, and even meaning of a film.  But they necessarily collaborate with the other players, the screenwriter and editor – and the actors – who help construct the story, as well as the director, who manages the story through every stage of the process.
I tell them that a film is written three times.  It is first written as a script.  It is rewritten when it is translated into shots during production.  And it is rewritten again when those shots are put into sequence during the edit.  The movie can become something very different during each of these rewrites.  And when a cinematographer sees her shots cut together in a way other than intended, she can feel like the editor is doing it wrong, ruining the story.  We face conflicting urges to take over and dictate the edit, and to get frustrated and write the movie off.

Even though we have to learn to let our shots go when in the hands of the editor it doesn’t mean we divorce our thoughts from the other parts of the filmmaking process. Far from it. In the same way that screenwriters need to write visually, cinematographers should find themselves shooting like editors. No crew member, and no student, is an island.  Staying connected to the evolving movie pays educational dividends that will make shooters more sophisticated and refined in shooting effective shots. They are learning to “shoot for the edit.”

Although cinematographers are not expected to edit, because editing is a different job, I suggest that everyone benefits from editing his or her own projects while at school.  We learn how a movie comes together only in the editing room.  We begin to see what is meant by “the language of a movie” when shots work together, or when they do not – when shots are missing and it’s too late to go back and get that insert.

And we see the object of a movie, that what we deliver to the audience is a construct of specific parts – that it is this shot for this long only, and that is followed by specifically this next shot.  A close up of a face looking through a window followed by a high angle shot of someone walking through city streets tells a story.  The audience fills in the missing information at the edit, between the shots, and makes meaning.

Viewers draw a connection from the first shot to the second, and experience something that is not physically in either of those shots: maybe that the person in the window is spying on the person walking through the street. Or waiting for him. Or missing her. How can you possibly photograph “missing,” or “betrayed” or “regret”? Yet somehow the audience sees those things. So it is for all viewers.  Through editing we discover that we deliver a specific experience via a specialized language, that of images in sequence.

Seeing this happen, in the editing suite, as cinematographers, we begin to see what our shots really are: elements of visual grammar. And from that realization we can begin to learn the nuances of which shots will work in which story moments. What if the shot of the person in the window is a profile? What if it is over the shoulder? Or a little bit tighter of a frame? What if we use a long lens for the high angle shot of the person in the street? Will it be more voyeuristic? What about a wide-angle lens? What if it’s not a high angle shot at all, but down at street level? Have we now adjusted the audience’s sense of setting? Is it time for that shift?

Maybe we discover that we needed such a shift in setting, that we need the audience to leave behind the person in the window, and join the experiences of the person on the street.  But we only have an objective point-of-view of the person in the window.  What can we do?  There is an expression, “flop sweat,” meaning the panic you feel in the edit room when a scene is not coming together. Everyone asks, “How could we not see this failure coming?”  This unpleasant circumstance turns out to be a great learning experience.  It leads to an evolution in filmmakers, that they shoot for the edit, which really just means they have the ability to envision the scene edited, even while they prep and shoot it.

I also believe that editing is a beautiful and creative art.  Sometimes we can find something greater than planned and expected, even for those who know how to shoot for the edit.  For example, the way holding a close up for longer than you might have intended when shooting it can somehow spawn an idea or an emotion that didn’t exist in the edit before. Or the way a close up, stolen from the footage after the director calls “cut,” can become the perfect supporting reaction shot during some other character’s lengthy and inspired speech.

And so when we see a scene edited differently than how we shot-listed it, we can ask ourselves: Did the editor actually create something larger or more true than intended?  Rewrite the scene into something better?  After all, that’s what the editor’s there for.  Or if the scene is weaker than intended, is it because we as cinematographers didn’t deliver the necessary shots for a cohesive scene?  In other words, did we shoot for the edit?  The best way to train yourself to shoot for the edit is to experiment with editing whenever you can, and to collaborate with your editor when your project has one.  Find out how he sees the story, the scene, and where the hidden pitfalls may lie.

All films are always going to be a mix of players, each imprinting a bit of themselves through their contributions.  But the greatest success for all happens when each player does what they do, and communicates what they want to do, with each other, so that the shots work together.  That’s what it takes to make great films.

Editing practices, Editor’s role