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Volume 4, Number 5
May, 1999

What a Film Editor Does

by Greg Tennant

The least of which is splicing pictures together.

The editor has to keep his mouth shut and not argue with the executive salesman who's leaning over his shoulder telling him what to do because he thinks it'll sell better. He also has to watch out for the boss undercutting him and the other editors by having them work on the same project at the same time but not letting any of them know about it. Then when they find out about each other, they can each fear losing their job because the other guy is going to get it right, when there's no way to determine what's right anyway.

Actually some editors do a good job, and they're appreciated. But the job is soon over, and they have to go work for a sleazy producer again. There's plenty of tits and blood to work on. Not much true emotion, though. That's too scary for even the biggest of Hollywood hit-men, because it's also too scary for most of the human race that buys movie tickets. Humanity is a pathetic sad wasteland, and if you feel that way too then you'll fit right in, so enjoy yourself. Anyone can make a killing around here, as long as your heart is hard.

Here's how the process goes. The editor starts to work as soon as the camera rolls. At the end of the first day of shooting, the camera assistant drops off the film at the lab's night drop. The next morning, bright and early, the assistant editor picks up the dailies. Whether the thing's been shot on film or video, usually nowadays the dailies come back on 3/4" videotape. Film negative is transferred straight to videotape in a machine called a telecine.

Then the editor watches the dailies, taking notes about what's good and what's bad. Hopefully they're shooting whole scenes, because otherwise it'll be hard for you to keep up with what they're doing and tell them if they forgot to get a connecting shot or something.

See, because what you do as the editor is edit the scenes as soon as they're shot. You have to keep up with the camera. If they need to get an insert shot of the cigarette lighter because you can't see it in the master, or if they forgot to get a shot of someone moving across the room to the door and you've only got shots of them in the middle of the room and then already AT the door, they'll want to know that before they move off that set or out of that location. Also, if there was some kind of camera problem, or if they got a shot out of focus, they'll need to know that right away too so they can reshoot it.

One time on "Digital Man" they had the camera on a Steadicam, and the Steadicam operator tripped over a rock. The shot was pretty interesting, following the commandos as they ran across the rubble, and then the camera nose-diving into the dirt and going black. But of course it wasn't good for anything more than a laugh. They checked out the camera and decided it was good enough to keep on using, but they asked me to look closely at all the footage following that shot and see if anything was wrong. Well, it looked just fine, so they decided it was okay to take that camera with them out to the 400-mile-away location they were going to the next day. Meanwhile the knuckleheaded producer wanted me to do a host of other less important tasks, so I didn't watch carefully enough the next dailies coming in from the location. There began to be a problem with the picture, gradually appearing, until finally they were sending me stuff that was totally unusable. A mirror in the camera had been loosened in the fall, and it gradually got worse until it broke loose and caused bad streaking and fogging on the whole picture. They had a lot of stuff to reshoot up there on location in the mountains and they were pretty sad I hadn't noticed its earliest traces.

So while you're busy working as fast as you can to cut the scenes as fast as they shoot them, the producer will likely ask you to put together a "promo" of what's been shot so far, to show to other potential investers or distributors. He's always making deals with people, every day all the time. That's his job. And if he's a fool about it, he won't tell you what the priorities are between staying on schedule and making his promo, he'll just expect you to do it all. And if he's really a fool, he'll also tell you not to use any shots of a particular actress that he's taken a personal disliking to, even if she's doing a fine job acting in the movie. You'll have to put together a collection of the coolest shots in the film, preferably all the explosions and lots of the slow-motion stuff, but none with the actress he doesn't like, even if she plays a major role. And it has to be edited in an exciting, well-thought-out manner, to make everyone he shows it to really excited about the movie and want to get involved in any way they can.

You'll also have to stop in the middle of whatever work you're doing any time he comes in and wants to see how it's going. Don't show him a well-acted scene of character expression, however; make sure to show him scenes with lots of explosions and slow-motion stuff, or sex, if you have it, because that's the stuff that sells, and he wants to know he's got a saleable product. He doesn't care about film quality. He's a business man with money invested and deals made with other business men.

So there are many more human considerations to being an editor than there are picture splicing ones. Knowing about rhythm and pace and the through-line of a scene are just the beginning. Knowing how to use the machines is even more basic. The main thing is to know how to get along with the other people in the film business, which sometimes can be genuinely great, but other times is worse than you can imagine.

There's little film editing going on any more these days. Most of it is done on videotape or computer. The top computer editing systems right now are Avid and Lightworks. Cheaper alternatives are Media-100 and D-Vision. I've only used Avid, but they're all fairly similar. Avid runs on a Macintosh platform, using icons and windows and all that. You digitize video dailies into multi-gigabyte disk drives at low resolution, do all the editing on the computer screen, and then print out on paper (and copy to floppy disk) a list of all the frame numbers of all the cut-points you've chosen. Then you'll hand over the list to the negative cutter at the lab, and they'll find all the frame numbers on the original film negative and splice them together in the order you've selected. They make a print of the cut negative, and that's the movie.

Most of what an assistant does is digitize footage and keep a log of what's where. The assistant also organizes the script supervisor's notes that come in each day from the set, so the editor can refer to what's been shot and what the director thought of each take as it was filmed. It's important for the editor working during shooting to get current script notes and shooting reports from the script supervisor, so he can know whether there's a closeup on character George while he says his key line, or if it's only been done in a medium shot or an over-the-shoulder. Another thing the assistant does is keep the editing room well stocked with snacks and drinks, because the days usually run ten hours, often twelve. Avids and the other systems have largely taken over the film assistant's jobs of keeping track of trims and shots, but the snack buying remains an important responsibility that no computer has yet been able to fulfill.

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