It’s a great job… except for the deadlines.

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Okay… let’s be honest:
The deadlines make the job.
Otherwise editing would be a fully artistic pursuit rather than the craft I know it to be.
If you’re wondering, in Dave’s Big Book Of Post-Production Terminology, “art” and “craft” shake out like this:
If your creative effort has to contend with the clock… what you’re doing is a craft; if, on the other hand, you’ve got all the time in the world…
Yup, you’re an Artist, baby.
It’s the clock, you see, that makes us. It’s the clock… lighting fires under our decisions.
Every decision, every decision… gets measured against the clock.
Even in this day of hyperspace editing, at some point, the clock says you’re done. So you best actually be, you know, done.
And your work had better still be great.
The first time I took the clock seriously—the first time I had to take the clock seriously—I worked broadcast news as a floor director where I discovered how ten seconds is actually a super long time.
So is five, for that matter.
And if you’re in front of the camera with one second to go…
No one cares so long as you’re not still there when the red light comes on that second later.
Of course it’s live news, but it’s not like they make the whole thing up on the fly. There’s a “format” which is the blow by blow of what’s to happen in each segment of each hour or half-hour. And while I don’t know or completely understand the process by which novice floor directors become expert… I will say that somewhere in there your brain puts it all together. Whereas on your first day you had no idea the director was talking to you on headset… and you could only think about what was on paper for the next, say, five seconds… at some point, your brain filters out everything directed at everyone else so that you only hear the director when the director is, in fact, talking to you.
At some point, as well, you’re seeing more than the next five seconds.
You can see minutes.
And in those minutes, you can see where various land mines lay… and do something about them now.
Yes, you can see into the future.
No joke.
Working in the booth intensifies that experience exponentially. The booth, you see, is nothing but information about the future, provided you’re watching… and listening.
Provided that your senses are tuned to the future.
It’s also this:
When I started weekends, they had two graphics people up there: one running the Chyron character generator, the other running Quantel’s Picture Box for still graphics.
At some point, the decision was made to make those two jobs a one-person job. And just as with novice floor directors, I don’t know or completely understand the process by which a person doing one of those jobs… mentally absorbs both.
For example, the first time I was on deck for this kind of duty, the director called for a still graphic.
I knew he was calling for a still graphic.
Everyone knew he was calling for a still graphic.
Personally, my expectation was that my partner on still store would make that happen.
Except… that person was me.
Whoops.
Not long after, I was able to be the split personality the new job required. There came to be two filters in my brain prompting me to independently perform each of the jobs, as well as make accurate predictions about what would be needed of both.
Still, it was weird having to absorb the 
whole human being working the other job.
I’m still talking about the clock, by the way.
For example:
No matter which job I was doing, or how many of those jobs I was doing at once, during the course of a newscast there’s what the producer knows and tells you about… but there’s the other stuff that no one knows: breaking news.
And all of what you need to get done… in the time you have in which to get it done… has to be reconciled.
Because—accuracy being the most important thing—if you can’t get something done by the time it’s needed, you have to let the director know in sufficient time so he can drop it from the show.
No harm, no foul.
Still, I was biased to get it all done no matter how much piled on. And  in that adrenalin-filled atmosphere of live news, I learned The Three Things You Need To Beat (And Cheat) The Clock:

1. Raw speed,
2. A Tetris-like ability to sequence your actions, and
3. An ability to see into the future.

No joke on Number 3, by the way.
There really is some critical mass of information and observation that allows you to know what happens next. Then what happens after that. And what happens after that.
Now.
Take that experience, move it into an edit suite, and I say there are still similarities.
The clock’s still there; let’s not pretend it’s not. Because every time I go down to the wire on some show I’ve been finessing a day, a week, two weeks, a month… I’m reminded that hours really do count.
As do minutes.
Sometimes seconds, still.
So… speed matters.
How I sequence my actions matters.
Seeing into the future… matters.
Plus, there’s this: with more time, you’ve gotta contend. Because, as is so often the case, everything you touch has some impact on something else. Sometimes everything else.
And then you’ve gotta deal with that.
As you might guess, the big difference is that there’s more creative endeavor here. Remember, there’s what we want our shows to be… and there’s what our shows can be.
For example, I cut a show once that—in laying out all The Things That Must Be Put Into The Show—came in exactly on time.
But.
The show dealt with adult care of parents with Alzheimer’s… and one of the scenes in the show achieved something important when allowed to play out.
No cuts.
It was a scene in which an adult brings her parent home and begins the process of taking care of them.
And the longer you watched the scene, the more fascinating it became… until in watching, you as the viewer realized how rote it was and how it was never. going. to end.
All it was ever going to be was worse.
And the longer this one scene continued, the more desperate it became. The more mind-numbing. The more tragic.
Bingo.
You’re not just watching it anymore, you’re feeling it.
Feeling it deep.
Of course now the show was long, and I had no idea what to cut. According to the client’s priorities, everything else in the show was untouchable.
So I showed it to the producer, who loved it. And also had no idea what to cut.
Then we showed it to the client, who loved it. And because they were struck by the power of that scene, resolved to make cuts elsewhere. It was their call to change the rules of the game, you see.
In the end, I’m not sure how much I’d enjoy what I do if it was art; if somehow there wasn’t a clock to contend with; if there weren’t hard limits on how much I could create.
Call me an adrenalin junkie.
Call me crazy.
Or maybe just call me someone who loves a good challenge.
It’s a craft.
It’s my career.
It’s this thing that fully engages me every day.
How cool is that?

It’s Like Tourette’s… You Just Can’t Stop Yourself

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I was at an airport in Europe.
The shoot was done and all our bags were checked. We were waiting at the gate for boarding.
The producer and I were killing time flat-lining.
The photographer, however, well… a little boy was being cute nearby and the photographer decided to capture this particular moment on Beta SP.
This was the nineties, so it was one of the old monster UVW jobs from Sony. It wasn’t built for convenience…
It was just built.
So anyway, the photographer picks up this beast and starts rolling on the kid’s random cuteness.
Not sort of getting what was going on here, I went up to the photographer and said
“You know we’re never gonna use this, right?”
To which he replied with a simple
“I know.”
As if that explained everything.
Over the years working with this photographer, I came to learn about a long career that wove all the way back to Super 8 as a kid.
Which gave me this insight when it came to hitting record on the boy in the airport:
The photographer couldn’t help himself.
Photography was the habit of his life.
His… Tourette’s.
Oh sure, he’s a professional and he’s paid.
But first and foremost… he’s a photographer.
Paid or not.
Job or not.
Project or not.
He had constantly an eye on the world around him for something to capture on tape. And if it caught his eye in the right way, he’d roll on it.
Okay.
Cut to a wedding reception in Bellevue.
My wife and I are seated at a table with childhood friends of the groom…
Even though neither of us are childhood friends of the groom, himself a director/editor/composer.
But through the evening’s conversation and storytelling, I discover how the groom’s made films and videos since he was a teenager.
Yes, he’s a proffesional.
Yes, he’s paid.
But first and foremost, he’s a filmmaker.
He just can’t help himself.
And so on.
It’s a thing I’ve come to recognize in the producers, directors, photographers, editors, composers, and writers whose paths I cross: there is some part of what they do professionally… that they’ve always done. Paid or not. Professionally or not.
Usually going back to their teen years.
Childhood even.
The fact that they’re now production or post production professionals is a natural conclusion to their need for a job doing the thing they love; that thing they spend hours doing anyway.
And what does that look like for The Editor As A Teenager?
Well, the answer to that, believe it or not, would be music; that if you were to take some group of editors, the trait you’re most likely to find common between them is that early on they learned how to play a musical instrument.
Even the teens I know today who are accomplished with any number of computer editing tools… play an instrument, often playing in a school band as well.
Of course this is based on my own observations, readings, and research. But I am surprised how much it holds true.
As to why it is or might be… I have no idea. Other editors I know think it’s because we each have our own internal beat.
Maybe.
No matter what the answer, though, it just seems to be part of the editor’s DNA.
And while it is true that my childhood and teen years were filled with piano lessons and choir performances, the ability to which I relate my editing most… is writing.
Check this:
Third grade, and my teacher, Mrs. Losie, tells us that if we write a story, one of the moms will type it up into a little book that we can then illustrate.
So I write one.
And then another
And then another.
And yes, the flood gates were opened and I was the Dean Koontz of third grade in terms of output.
And I’ve been writing ever since.
The reason, though, that I identify my career as an editor with my writing is that I spend more time picking at and massaging my written pieces than I do pumping out first drafts.
So my writing turns out more to be re-writing, re-arranging, applying different word shadings, cuts for pacing, and lots n lots of proofing.
In many ways I like playing with what I’ve written more than I like the original writing. You might say that what I appreciate most about the process is, in a word…
Editing.
And to this day, I’m writing writing writing. I used to have a notepad jammed in my back pocket into which I’d pour ideas and essays… now it’s an iPhone.
Of course the actualy video editing… wasn’t as convenient. In fact, it took a little technological  innovation and price droppage to find its way into my daily life. But it happened.
And my brain really does like to mess around with the art of the edit. So along with national and local productions I edit professionally, and aside from the occasional projects I do for fun, over the years I also found myself volunteering to shoot and edit daily videos for youth camps as well as a yearly kindergarten video (with my wife) that’s a little Allen Funt, a little cinema verite, and not just a little kindergartners run amok.
I even get the time to shoot videos with my daughter the musician.
Like my photographer friend at the airport, I can’t help myself. Once something catches my attention in the right way, it’s hard not to want to do something with it.
And finally, I understand why my friend’s simple “I know” back in that airport in Europe….
Actually did explain everything.

 

Cutting Out The Boring Parts…

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When you talk to people outside of production, you find they hold some unusual beliefs about How Things Work in TV.
For example, when I worked at KOMO-TV as a floor director for the news, Northwest Afternoon, and Town Meeting… I ran into audience members who believed that the camera guys on set were the ones determining what went on the air.
Never mind the executive producer, producer, director, technical director, or even the folks in Master Control… when it came to what viewers saw on their television sets at home (according to these people), it was the camera guys on set who made that call.
Go figure.
Same deal with editing, though.
You’ll find a lot of people whose concept of editors is something like those guys who limb trees: the tree’s there, it’s fine. It just needs random limbs to be hacked off it.
Then it’ll be perfect!
Or you find people who truly believe in the cult of director; that film and tv are fully god-like expressions of a singular effort: that of the director.
One of my favorite opinions came from a twenty-something who was trying to get another twenty-something to edit a video for kids at a camp.
“Editing is like doing a puzzle,” he said. “And I HATE puzzles.”
Okay THAT… was funny.
And not just a little bit true.
Because no matter the kind of project–whether it be dramatic, documentary, promotional, personal–there are always gonna be choices; alternatives through which to sift; possibilities to explore.
And I think–I believe–that when it comes to the DNA of editors, one thing you’ll find is an ability-slash-desire-slash-appetite for extracting order from chaos; for filtering reality into some compelling subset.
And yes, sometimes that really does involve cutting out the boring parts.
And yes, it’s a puzzle, too.
But it’s a puzzle whose final image we, as editors, can change–do change–through our choice of which pieces to use from the hundreds or thousands available; through our choice of how to marry picture with sound; through how we tweak the pieces themselves through effects, through order, and through pace.
We are the crossroads at which technology meets the art of the possible.
But most of all…
We’re storytellers.
Because at the end of the day, the tools of the craft aren’t tucked safely away in the vault of some secret editors guild.
My daughter has access to the tools of the craft, for crying out loud.
Everybody, basically, has access to the tools of the craft.
So does that make them all editors?
Well…
When it comes to what I believe about How Things Work In TV… everything I’ve learned, everything I’ve seen, everything I know–tells me that while the tools of the craft are as enabling as they’ve ever been, the underlying commission that defines the individual editor hasn’t changed one bit.
It is still the case that every show we make is challenged by what we want it to be, what it CAN be, and the time we have in which to figure out what we’re gonna do.
Turns out the currency of our craft is not  simply technical proficiency; lots of people have that.
What we have is fluency in a language that engages audiences. Makes them feel things that are uniquely the products of editing.
We bring technique to storytelling, after all… not just technology.
We have the experience and the instinct to know when something’s not working in a show, why it’s not working…
and what to do about it. And we can communicate those things to producers and directors.
We are a fresh pair of eyes. A genuine first reaction to footage with which we have no connection.
We can collaborate. We can enable. We can execute vision.
We have experience swimming in the waters of reviews and notes… and have some sense of how to navigate those waters successfully. Although not always unscathed.
We work, after all, in a medium where ideas often do battle with each other.
Even afterwards, though, we can make changes–to our most darling efforts–as if those changes were our very own ideas in the first place.
Because that’s the job.
The making of a film, a documentary, a story… doesn’t begin with the tools of our craft any more than Frank Lloyd Wright designed his wonderful creations based soley on what he could do with the hammer, the screwdriver, or the saw in his toolbox.
He started with an idea. An inspiration. A solution.
Similarly, the making of a film, a documentary, a story… begins with an idea, an inspiration, and yes
sometimes a solution.
And the challenge isn’t simply how to record any of those things… but how best to realize and share them with other human beings in some meaningful way.
That is editing.

 

Technicians, Artists, & Craftsmen… Oh My!

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I took a couple FB quizes that tried to tell me my brain is flopping way over to the left.
Analytical. Systematic. Disciplined.
Orderly.
I am apparently well-suited for a career as an engineer, a librarian, or a counselor.
I am also apparently johnny-on-the-spot to be an accountant, a banker, a human resources autobot, and a financial advisor.
Will someone please just SHOOT me now?
Puhleez?
I am an editor. Always have been.
Always will be.
Even when I’m doing other things.
The thing I do for a living is to take an ocean of moving pictures and a script… and help transform all of that into a singular, compelling experience.
And to do that–yeah–I prepare a lot .
I read… and re-read… and re-re-read the script.
I watch, and listen to, every pixel of video that comes back from the field.
I make notes about what’s awesome and what sucks.
I tag different one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other by location, by subject, by person.
By feel.
And by any other means that strike me as useful.
No two projects are the same in this way. Each one has different strengths and sensibilities.
So in my first pass through the footage, my antenae are tuned up to find character and characteristics; to find them, tag them, and eventually lay them out in a handy, color-coded one page spread sheet.
Okay. So far–yeah–my brain is flopping over to the left like a beached whale on its side.
At some point while I’m reading the script, I’ll start marking where I think the show will benefit from music. I’ll also spend time researching the music of the place; its character and history.
After that, I’ll spend a TON of time looking for virtual instruments and/or sound design libraries to buy; sounds that will help me shape the show in the direction I want it to go.
Okaaaaay. Starting to lean back to the right a bit.
The thing is–and this is what I tell people about the work I do–editing’s a head game.
Sure, there’s lots of fancy equipment and high tech tools… but so what? Everybody’s got those.
What separates professional editors from everyone else editors is the quality of our ideas and our ability to piece together a show as scripted… then kick it up a notch.
Or two. Or three.
We reveal aspects and qualities, shades and accents, that no one else sees.
Or would even imagine from the raw footage.
And just so you know… none of that has anything to do with Final Cut Pro, or Macbooks, or mixing consoles, or color correction, or Pro Tools, or any of the other bazillion gear, gizmos, and gimmicks we editors bring to bear on stories headed for the big or small screen.
All those left-brained, analytical hoops I make myself jump through?
Well, the only thing they do is help me get projects to the starting line. That’s it.
Once all that stuff I read… and re-read… and re-re-read, sift through, organize, and mark up… once all that’s in my head, something else takes over.
Feel, intuition, experience.
Nerve.
And the magic?
Well, that happens while I’m sitting in the edit bay considering a section of script… when all of a sudden I can see the finished sequence; it just kind of lays itself out in my head like a gift-wrapped birthday present.
Or I’ll be struggling with an approach… and some whole other awesome idea just drops into my lap.
Basically, once all that stuff’s in my head and some funky kind of critical mass is achieved, my neurons and synapses go off into their own corner and apparently do all the heavy lifting; raining down nudges, ideas, and full-on solutions as I run into the stuff I run into.
Music is even more magical. Because after the research, and brainstorming, and thinking–especially if I’m thinking about a particular portion of the script–often I’ll wake up with the music I need playing in my head.
And sometimes that stuff will keep playing up there while I work frantically to outline or transcribe it all on my notepad.
Before it’s gone again.
So… no. Left-Brain… not quite me.
And for sure I’m never gonna clock in as a financial advisor.
Heck, my daughter’s got more cash on her this very minute… than I do.
When it comes to me, the kind of work I do requires a kind of relay race of two.
Starts with the left brain.
But it’s always the right brain that gets me across the finish line.