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At Last, a Modern Book on the History of Editing

April 6th, 2015

A good book like a well-edited film just flows along and carries you in its merrily rolling stream. Such is the case with Twilight for the Gods written by Jack Tucker, ACE.

Twilight for the Gods book coverHe has created the most up-to-date, thorough, readable history on editing that I’ve encountered. He packs its 116 pages with facts and concepts and works in anecdotes and true tales from the editing room that, like any good cut, push the story along and make it zing.

In my October 13, 2011 post I opined that “A good history of editing has yet to be written.” Tucker has now done that from the viewpoint of a Hollywood editor.

I crossed paths with Jack twelve years ago when I was teaching Final Cut Pro and writing my first book on editing. He kindly opened his garage where a KEM resided and patiently posed for Jack Tucker at KEMphotos for the first edition of Cut by Cut: Editing Your Film or Video. Then he met me and my photog at a now defunct film lab where he had a film cutting room and taught students about film.

In addition, Jack exuberantly blurbed both editions of Cut by Cut Jack Tucker cutting film(“Finally we have a comprehensive text on the subject. It is what God and DeMille intended.”) I have quoted him in my books and to my classes: “Editing is not a technical process. It’s an artistic process. It’s about story telling. What editors do, is the final rewrite of the script.” So I am happy to repay him and happier still to state emphatically that Twilight for the Gods is a fun, worthwhile read for all who want to understand the process, politics, and evolving technologies on the decades-long road from patchers (the original film cutters) to digital film editors.

Thus Spake Tucker
“It is twilight for the gods of time and space … Now electronic editing has erased the mysticism that long protected them and their craft. The editor’s power over time and space is being usurped … Sitting behind him are the director, the Twilight for the Gods book coverproducer, the executive producer, and the lead actor all eagerly helping him or her edit, and all covetous of the power of the gods. Collaborative art has gotten confused with mob rule.”

Thus Tucker begins his book by explaining its title – which both pays homage to editors past and lays out a challenge to editors present and future. He hopes that the latter “… will love the craft as I have and learn from it. It is magic, and we are the gods of time and space.”

Tucker Enters the Cutting Room
Tucker started his editing career as an airman at Vandenberg Air Force Base in 1964 when he was assigned to the editorial department of the 1369th Photo Squadron. Cinema Editor Magazine coverFrom this assignment he became infected with what he terms “‘the holy disease,’ the love of filmmaking—and particularly of film editing.”

Eventually, Tucker landed in Hollywood where he worked on features and TV shows and founded and served as editor on “Cinemeditor,” the ACE magazine. He toiled on many of the same movie studio lots I did. So I got a kick out of his description of Washington Row – two stories of editing rooms at MGM (now Sony) that back up to Washington Blvd. in Culver City – which he likens to “a tenement in a New York slum.”

Tucker on Editing
There will never be another time like this first cut. It is a solitary moment between creator and creation. The editor knows that it is only his skill and instincts that are shaping the film at this point. It is a love affair, a first love, between editor and footage, with no outsiders involved.”

While this is not a “how to” book but rather a “how it’s done” book, Tucker drills beneath the surface to delineate editing systemthe editing process starting with organizing and viewing dailies, proceeding to facing the footage and making your first edit and on to facing the director with the completed first cut of the show to re-cutting. He covers today’s digital editing room as well as yesterday’s film cutting room, bridging them with his deep knowledge and passion for the art of editing, a testimony to art triumphing over whatever technology evolves in the future.

Tucker On Working with Directors
Tucker devotes a chapter to the relationship between director and editor, making many astute observations. He believes that editors are the “real assistant directors” whereas the ADs on the set are function editor and director more as production managers. He recalls talking with Director-Editor Robert Wise who cut for Orson Welles who recounts how directors used to view cuts only in the screening room and never entered the editing room. When the director is in the room, Tucker believes that the editor will work to please the director (or other power-that-be) rather than experiment with the footage to possibly bring out the film better. Just as the editor is the impartial artist removed from what happens on the production set, the director should be the impartial viewer in the theatre, removed from what happens in the editing room. Of course with digital systems this is no longer the case, with everyone thinking they can edit the movie if they just learn the tool but good films and editor-director collaborations can and do occur daily, Tucker notes.

Tucker Covers the Waterfront of Film Editing History
Poster of Edison's invention Tucker does a great job of discussing the familiar as well as lesser known figures, events, and entities in film and editing history including Edison, Muybridge, and his zoopraxiscope, Zoetrope, Eastman and celluloid film, Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1889, first film shot in the U.S.), the Lumiere Brothers, George Melies, Edwin S. Porter, Mabel Clark, patchers, DW Griffith, The Trust, and Margaret Booth, the French New Wave, split screens, and Donn Cambern and the cutting of Easy Rider.

Original Moviola He also details the technological inventions that affected art and craft of editing. He pays tribute to Iwan Serrurier who invented the Moviola and reveals how it got its name.

Tucker looks at the beginnings of TV, including the history of Dann Cahn and the “Monster Moviola” as well as the inception of the Cinerama technique. Who knew Cinerama was originally developed from an Cinerama Dome Air Force gunnery training tool? And that it “was a bitch to edit” Tucker asserts. In his always clear and accessible way he explains how the addition of color and sound on film affected the medium. And he documents the technical developments of video tape, demystifying 3:2 pulldown, telecine, linear editing, and generation loss along the way.

The Long Goodbye
He documents the long fade out from cutting on film that began with the appearance of nonlinear tape based systems in the 1980s and finished in the millennium after digital systems began proving themselves in the 1990s. The last chapter ends with Tucker detailing the current Hollywood editing landscape with Digital Intermediates, the demise of film labs, digital archiving issues, and dailies shot on Red Cameras and Alexas.
Wild Bunch Poster

Looking at the horizon, he concludes philosophically with a line from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch: “It ain’t like the old days, but it’ll do.”

Editing & life, Editing practices, Editor’s role, History/research, Technical & process, Television