I feel very lucky to have been born when I was. I was a member of the last generation of kids to grow up making home movies. That is, specifically home movies, not home videos. As a kid growing up in Northern Kentucky, I became obsessed with movies and the filmmaking process, largely as a result of having my brain scrambled by STAR WARS at age 6. I first got my hands on a Super-8 camera in the 5th grade and began making my own stop-motion masterpieces. Anyone born even a few years after me would have probably gone straight to home video when they became old enough to start scratching their cinematic itches. They would never have held a shoelace-sized strand of film up to the light to find the perfect frame, would never have used a safety pin to scratch laserblasts into the emulsion, would never have felt the soul-satisfying kerchunk of the splicer as they made an edit. I lived and breathed film, and I turned every class presentation into an excuse to make a movie.
And yet, had I been born a few years earlier, I would probably have been too stuck in the old ways to ever fully embrace the digital age. I almost missed the boat as it was. After high school, I attended The Ohio State University in Columbus, where I received my Bachelor of the Fine Arts degree in Photography & Cinema. This was when film school was film school. We shot on old wind-up Bolex cameras and edited on Steenbeck flatbeds. Then, literally the day I graduated from college, JURASSIC PARK opened in theaters and immediately made my degree obsolete. Suddenly, Hollywood went digital. It started with special effects and sound systems, then quickly moved into the editing room. My skills at cranking a rewind weren’t going to get me a job anywhere.
I moved back home for a few years after college and worked as a projectionist at a local movie theater, where I could still get my hands on celluloid and hear the flutter of the shutter blades. I eventually saved up enough money to move to California, where I immediately found work through the projectionist union, working at historic venues across Hollywood and even running world premieres of major studio movies. And I also attended a screening of STAR WARS – EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE when it became the first movie projected digitally in DLP. During the end credits, I walked up to the screen and examined the pixels. It looked nowhere near as good as film, in my opinion, but the writing was literally on the wall. Film was being pushed out of the projection booth as well.
I decided it was time to get out ahead of the wave, so I jumped at a chance to edit a movie (for free) using an early non-linear editing system called D/Vision. The program was a little clunky, but very intuitive. I took to it right away, and I was amazed at how quickly I could trim frames to get a cut just right, without all the endless splicing (even if I did miss the kerchunk). The movie cut together quickly and the director was happy with it. That job led to a couple more D/Vision jobs that actually paid (a little). But few people in L.A. were using D/Vision to make real movies, so I enrolled in an Avid course at Video Symphony in Burbank. After the first day of class, I realized that thanks to my previous experience, I already had the hang of non-linear editing.
All I really needed was a chance to spend time on a system, getting to know the software better. So I borrowed some money from my family and bought an Avid Xpress system. Ironically, as I was learning the Avid, I got my first job editing on a newer system called Final Cut Pro. I was hired by a director who had just bought a Mac with version 2.0 of Final Cut, but he didn’t know how to use it. I told him I didn’t know how either, but I was sure I could figure it out. Being my third non-linear system, and the most user-friendly yet, it didn’t take me long. As the next few years went by, I found I was getting more Final Cut Pro work than Avid, even without owning one. I still resisted buying one for years, because it seemed I was always working somewhere that gave me access to one whenever I needed it. I did eventually break down and buy one, though, at a time when my Avid was being rented out, mostly because my home just didn’t feel right without an editing system in it.
Don’t bother asking me which I prefer. The honest answer is that I usually prefer the one I’m not currently using. It’s easy to get frustrated by the thought that what I’m trying to do right now would be so much easier if I were on the other system. But even more frustrating is having projects going on both systems at the same time, and having to adjust my brain to the correct set of keyboard shortcuts. Such is the fate of an editor who refuses to choose sides.
I think the thing I enjoy most about editing is that it exercises both lobes of the brain. It requires equal parts artistic creativity and analytical reasoning. You need to know how to smooth out an edit without screwing up the sync in the process. You need to be able to completely rethink the structure of the narrative in order to find its emotional core. You need to be immersed within the movie, while also clinically dissecting it. Although I’m a very analytical person, I tend to edit mostly by instinct, but with the knowledge that my instincts are informed by a lifetime of watching and analyzing movies. It’s the perfect marriage of left-brain and right-brain thinking. And before you interject, yes, I know the whole left-brain/right-brain thing is largely a myth, anatomically speaking, but let’s not let modern neuroscience derail an entire paragraph.
It’s a funny thing about film editing… when it’s bad, it can make a movie unwatchable, but when it’s good, you don’t even notice it. As a lifelong lover of movies, I have favorite directors, favorite screenwriters, even favorite composers and cinematographers, but I can’t really name any favorite editors. Partly I think that’s because so much of what the editor does is simply executing the director’s vision. But also I think it’s because it’s designed to be invisible. If you’re watching a scene and you’re thinking about the coverage, clearly the editing is not serving the story. It may be hard to notice good editing, but it’s very easy to notice when it’s bad. And yet, even then, how can you judge the editor without knowing what footage they had to work with? I myself have been forced to make some pretty lousy cuts in my career, simply because I didn’t have the shot I needed. I wince when I see those edits go by. I am embarrassed by them, because I know nobody in the audience is thinking that poor editor didn’t have a decent cutaway to use there. They’re just thinking, wow, the editing in this scene sucks! Or at the very least, they are being jolted out of the scene for a moment, even if they don’t understand why. On the flip side, when the movie is great and they are watching the climax and gripping their armrests in suspense, no one in the audience is giving me any credit for my efforts. But they are experiencing them, and that’s all that really matters.
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