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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
It comes up waaaaaay more often than you’d expect (or wish against): you’re given a script, recorded VO, talking heads, and a minimal amount of B-roll. Add it all up, and it makes for not quite enough coverage to satisfy the producer’s vision. Or perhaps maybe the producer’s faith.
In this case, there was a fascinating story about an undercover CIA agent… with scant coverage for any of the stories he was telling. And how could there be? He was undercover.
Still, though, the lack of footage created a kind of black hole where interesting should’ve been. So I conjured a little (okay a lot) in order to add some mystery and intrigue.
Stock footage, satellite imagery, sound effects, motion graphics… it was all a juggling act that helped the story find its way to a local Emmy award.
The producer of this piece is Diane Duthweiler. And, of course, she loved the way it turned out.
One of the best things is when you look at the footage… and everything’s there.
Everything you need…
Don’t need graphics.
Don’t need music.
Don’t need to make stuff up.
Oh sure, there’s VO you’ve gotta cover. But the footage shot, and everything that’s going on in those shots, goes well beyond the written word.
And you get to play a little.
Of course, you don’t want to overstay your welcome, but you do want to create an immersive experience; one made possible not only by the visuals… but by the sound of actually being there.
In this case, there was dance, there were musicians, and there was a race.
Each of those elements had plenty of coverage, plenty of sound. And it was fun to play with the pieces, figuring out what was enough to give that sense of immediacy; of feeling just what it was like to be right there on the banks of the river.
Or in the boat.
Or dancing in the crowd.
Special thanks to Eric Jensen for spectacular coverage of this village race in Assam, India.
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.
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…
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?
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.