The blank canvas, assistant grooming tips and the new media revolution were among the fertile topics of discussion when creativity brought together a dozen of the industry's top editors at the Soho House last month. Here's are some of the best bits.
Chris Franklin, Big Sky; Stephane Dumonceau, Mad River; Bill Cramer, Crew Cuts; Yvette Pineyro, WildChild; Maury Loeb, PS260; Mike Douglas, Cut + Run; Jason MacDonald, Cosmo Street; Charlie Johnston, Lost Planet; Peter Mostert, Chemistry; Sloane Klevin, Version 2; Lucas Spaulding, Spotwelders; Matthew Wood, The Whitehouse
Creativity: We'd like to thank you all for joining us at our second annual Editors Roundtable. Let's start with a question that inspired much discussion last year—how would you define your role in the creative process? What distinguishes you from being just a "pair of hands"?
Matt: It depends on what country you're in. In London, you so with a director, compared to here. Obviously you have direct relationships here, but not as much. You work on storyboards with the directors , you're in the process earlier.
Sloane: Almost never in my entire career have I worked on a job that had a storyboard. I get sent days and days and days of footage, but a very vague idea that's kept vague purposely so that it can be sort of an organic creative process. For certain clients, that's impossible because the agencies tell them what every frame is going to be, and what the objective is going to be for each frame, and sometimes they see the cut deviates from that storyboard, and they say, "Where'd that shot come from?" They're sometimes even surprised that the shots are moving as opposed to exactly what they saw in the boards. (Laughter) But when I get a job like that, I'm almost sort of relieved because in my 17-year career that's happened to me, maybe, three times that I had a storyboard.
Peter: But I sort of choose not to look at storyboards and then cut. Afterwards, you can get the storyboard and modify your cuts. But I always like to have my own cut.
Matt: Usually, you feel it, you tell it, you cut it and then usually somebody says, "Can we cut it like the story board?" That's why they're paying you the money, why they're hiring you, to bring something different.
Lucas: I feel like it's taking the story boards and throwing them out, bringing them something they didn't think of, going over and above what they expected, which sometimes gets me fired but then other times it doesn't.
Maury: I'm kind of the opposite. I love story boards. I love script notes. I love all the research I can do. I like to know whether the stock price of that product fell or rose that week. I want all the information I can get before I start cutting. The film's going to speak to me when I start working on it, but I oftentimes put together a cut the way it's boarded like the contract version just to make sure I can do it, get that out of the way and then I'll play. I think when you're trying to sell something, if you show them what they want to see, and then you show them what you think, it's a lot stronger. You come away as somebody who really has a good, clear vision of what he's trying to do.
Chris: Yeah, the worst sound in the world is after running a rough cut for the first time. It's the loudest silence you'll ever hear in your life. It just hangs and hangs and then someone mumbles, "Hmm, lemme see it again?
Lucas: Yeah, I do a lot of comedy and no matter how funny the spot is, there's almost never laughter. It's just like trying to take it apart and make sure that it's good and then eventually, the laughs start coming. But it's like you're giving birth to something, and you want it to be good. You don't want to trivialize it by laughter.
C: You're showing a cut end even though it's funny people won't laugh?
Lucas: Many times they won't.
Mike: They're close to their film. It's more of a relief, maybe.
Peter: Or they get confronted by their own bad joke. (Laughter)
Chris: Also the kiss of death is the take that was funny at the shoot. Never ever funny. You know if you hear everybody laughing off camera you know, no, it's not going to work.
Bill: You like to think we're hired for our objectivity. Sometimes you are a pair of hands, but for the most part, you're hiring an editor to be objective about looking at the film.
C: How do you maintain your own objectivity after looking at the film for so long? How do you know when something's still funny?
Lucas: I think it's all about instinct, really.
Chris : How many times have you left the cutting room at 11 o'clock at night, and you leave, with a rough cut done, and you leave, in your head saying, "It sucks. It absolutely sucks!" Then you come in the next day. You look at it. You're, like, "Oh, wait."
Stephane: That's why I purposely try to schedule the meetings with the agency coming in at midday. And then I'll come in really early the next day, knowing that they'll be there probably by noon, and I'll usually get the best cut that morning.
C: How do the rest of you start out your edits?
Stephane: I always work backwards because I s kind of feel like the payoff is kind of what's going to be the spot. It doesn't mean it's the path I'm going to stick with, but it's kind of my road map. I hate the blank canvas.
Jason: I think it's irresponsible not to look at the boards in the beginning because people have gone down the road probably for months by the time you get it. If you just throw it away right off the bat, you might be missing something.
Bill: I find that throwing away the script notes and the board at the beginning of the process is really important to me, because then I'll focus on my cut the way I want it to be. And then in that morning, that's when I do the boarded cut, and I feel like it's much more because you've already gone through all the stuff.
C: How do you interact with your clients?
Matt: You should be facing people. So much of the time they're behind you. You should be watching them. We have this video-editing thing we call the Bosley, like Bosley from Charlie's Angels. And there are cameras in each suite in the offices, and we zoom into their faces.
Luca: I really like sitting with your face to the client. You can't always stare at somebody because they'll get freaked out, but it sort of humanizes the whole thing. That I think also makes you less a pair of hands too, because you're conversing with them like a normal human being rather than having to turn around and stop what you're doing. When I started working that way, it really, kind of opened things up.
Chris: The one method I'll throw out, though, when facing away, clients will start talking, and they don't think you can hear them. And it's not that they're saying things that are bad, it's just that they're conversing with each other and they think you're focused on what you're working. In the meantime, any good editor is going to listen to what's going on in back of the room. Listening is the key to the job, anyway. It's absolutely the key. If you can't listen, you're screwed. If you're listening to what they're saying, you can start going down a path to show them something, as they're talking about it.
Mike: Does anybody stand when they work? I have a table that's fit for my height. And I have a high chair with a hydraulic thing, because I have a bad back. So, I need to stand.
Lucas: Do you face them also with a high chair? It's like Oz.
Sloane: I assisted Walter Murch and he pioneered that standing thing. He had a really bad back. He had a KEM on a riser and he was like a conductor. And you could watch him working. He had this specially built for him, and it went everywhere. I'm sure he still does it.
Matt: [To Charlie] Do you know why Hank [Corwin] does it?
Charlie: I don't know. He also had this rule that he wouldn't have chairs in his room for everybody.
Matt: That's because he doesn't get them in for very long.
Charlie: It also makes it impossible for the other editors to work at his desk. (Laughter)
C: I'm sure you're all aware of the proliferation of all these different kinds of content, whether it be branded, virals, web films. What do you think of this kind of work, and how much has it become part of the job now?
Jason: It's fun. With virals, internet-based work, there's no restriction. There's no timing, clients are a little more liberal in what they allow. So often, lately I've been doing jobs that might include a YouTube spot, or a viral spot. We'll start there and maybe tone them down, or the clients will see how good those are and they'll be more open to letting stuff on TV. I think it's great. I recently did a job that was only for the Internet at first. And the clients loved it so much, they turned it into TV and spots for movie theaters and you never would have been able to do what they did had it been just for TV in the first place. So, the clients would have been too afraid to spend the money in that way. And the doors were just open. And it's way funnier, it ended up to be a lot better.
Matt: It used to be that cinema commercials were the braver ones. In London, it was like oh we can put a bit of a sexier shot. The internet is now another vehicle to do that.
C: Are you all being asked to do the DVD, and this and that? How much of that extra stuff are you doing?
Mike: All of it. It all translates—internet, or flash files or whatever. We're postproduction, so we're on the cutting edge of all that.
Lucas: Before the Internet was always a test. It was always like, "Oh, maybe it'll work, maybe it won't." Now I think the Internet definitely in client's eyes, does work. But TV is still sort of the Big Kahuna. Sometimes I wish people would put TV a little bit less on a pedestal. Rather than spend all your money on three commercials that are pretty good, you could maybe do a little more outside the box. It would be more fun for us, more fun for them, maybe be the same amount of money for a little more work, but creatively it could really open things up.
C: How does storytelling itself change when it comes to virals? You talked about being more free. A story doesn't have to be in 30 seconds. Maury, I remember when we posted the Marc Ecko viral that you cut on Adcritic, people were complaining it was way to long. But it was a viral!
Maury: Right. It was not a commercial, but people were critiquing it like it was a 30-second TV spot. This was a four-minute, boring piece of shit for a reason, because we crafted it to make it look like a bunch of guys secretly made this themselves. We were using this totally different set of tools, thinking about it in a totally different way. I was going against a lot of my commercial instincts for a reason. So watching all the people criticize it on AdCritic was actually really funny.
Matt: A lot of editors in our London office, we have a lot of longer-length commercials. And when we first merged with America, it was kind of interesting because it was, like, you know, we have a lot of 60s on our reels. And we all came over here, and all the rest were going, "Oooh." I think you might have to put some :30s. Why is that?
Stephane: Timing's an interesting thing in America. A lot of the agencies are very critical of directors' cuts. There are directors cuts like 1:38 and good creatives will immediately call it out and say I want to see what it looks like as a :30.
Sloane: I think a reel should represent who you are, your sensibility. My reel is long because I send it out for anything I'm up for. You know, a feature or a documentary, a commercial, a music video, whatever.
C: What cuts do you put on your reels? Agency's, directors, your own?
Chris: I'm not sure people know how to judge an editors reel.
Lucas: I think they judge it on the creativity. I think if it's a good spot, they'll like it, the reel. You can have a horrible spot, beautifully cut, they're still not going to go for it. Some of the directors who I work with and really respect, they don't even want a director's cut because all they want is the best thing on the air. I think creativity sometimes begins when limits are set. As an editor, you have to tell a story within 30 seconds, and whoever can do that best is who does the best job.
C: Do you feel that, like, the average person has the ability to judge an editor's reel?
Peter: When you're looking at another editor's reel, you try to look at the editing, but every now and then you find yourself trailing, watching the commercial instead of a shot. It's a really difficult thing to do.
Chris: Sound is 70 to 80 percent of any good edit, and it's one of the things that's always overlooked, always overlooked, because it's not a tangible thing
Peter: It's like editing is afterthought after the shoot, and then sound is the after-afterthought.
C: When does that come into your training, the actual sound part of editing?
Matt: In films days, it was the best. You learned as an assistant to lay out tracks. It was a hard thing to do. You don't get that so much now.
Sloane: But everybody's got tools at home now. I teach at Columbia and my students use all these programs I don't know how to use. They're all totally fluent in Final Cut Pro, in Pro Tools. By the time they get out of school, so, they're so hirable as assistants.
C: Going forward as editors in this business, how important will it be to know the new technologies?
Lucas: At the end of the day, it's what you do with the tools you have and how well you can use them.
Stephane: And you can't be good at everything. A lot of editors are great at After Effects or type. There are other editors who are really good at sound.These days, it seems like you are required to know a little more of something else.
Charlie: But even knowing computer software, that doesn't mean you're going to be good at it. You're going to have the talent to make a good spot out of it.
C: Is there anything you feel you do have to learn?
Lucas: I know some editors who use Combustion and Flame even. Once you start competing against that, and people start to get accustomed to that, then they start to expect it.
Maury: I always make an effort. I'll use whatever I need for rough cuts, to help sell it, whatever will make it look nice and shiny, but I try to stay away from using a lot of the other programs and really just concentrate on looking at the Avid. I'd much rather have it done by other people who know how to do this much better than I do it.
Chris: I started assisting a film editor. Hank and I were assistants together. And you would send next to the table of the editor, and you would watch him work on his synchronizer. You're handing him clips and you're synching dailies, you're getting sound effects, you're laying stuff, and you're only dealing with the production track and maybe a music track. You're physically there watching it. With Avid and all these programs, the editor is doing sound design, effects work and the cutting. Your assistants are pushed away. They're being deprived of the depth of knowledge that you have, and it's dangerous. It's not their fault, but all their knowledge seems to stop at 1992. At work, somebody had put The Birds on, and it was the scene in the restaurant, which is remarkably choreographed and cut. The sound is unbelievable. This is 1960. And everybody was sitting there watching it with their mouth open. They'd never seen the movie before. It's like, "Oh, man, you don't know how much stuff you haven't seen that's going to help you be better at what you do!" Anytime you're cutting, you're drawing on everything that you've seen. It just makes it a richer piece. If you don't have that depth, you're going to be working on a shallow plane in terms of creativity. Unfortunately, it puts the responsibility on the editor to be able to teach that stuff because you're only going to be as good as the flexibility and the contribution that your assistant gives you. Any editor relies desperately on your assistants.
Maury: I try to lock my assistants in the room with me. They just have the most to learn, if they're in the room for the whole thing.
Sloane: I always have my assistant go into another room and do their own cut with the same material. Usually it's after I've pulled the selects. Most of the time, honestly, I don't show the agency that, but if it's really great, I'll say, "Here's my cut, and here is what So & So did. I think it's really worth looking it, because it's totally different direction." Sometimes I'll just take one shot they found from it or one idea that I think is great, and incorporate it into my cut. And that gives them the experience of how you could solve a problem. What's also nice is that they're from another generation. They have a different sensibility, different references. Maybe they haven't seen The Birds, but they've been watching way more television than I have. It just gives you another perspective.
Peter: Sometimes they'll do something that's so completely against whatever rules there are—although I don't really know what the rules are—and it's really surprising, sometimes really great. It's really interesting, like why did you put these two scenes together or why did you use that sound?
Bill: I find that letting my assistant or requiring my assistant to do a cut just opens a dialogue and it gets them ready and experienced to talk about the cut, which is a lot of what an editor does.
Charlie: I cut a short and let my assistant cut the final scene. I came in, and it was so good. It was, like, Oh, my god! It was the best part of the short. This young kid blew me out of the water. And it gave me new energy. It keeps you young and hungry.
C: Here's question for partners or companies, owners. We've all seen changes in the business, in terms of production, postproduction. People are talking about bringing production and post in-house because of the shrinking budgets. How does that figure into your business models?
Jason: A year or two ago, I felt that I lost more jobs in-house a while ago. Lately I can't remember in the past year ever losing a job to in-house.
Lucas: Because every decent editor who's in-house wants to get out of the house.
Stephane: At a higher end, I don't think editorial is going anywhere. Money can be saved by keeping in-house, but ultimately for the high end job, you're still going to go out.
C: Do you see forging more relationships for the clients directly? For example, Anheuser-Busch has their own production company now.
Chris: It's a Wal-Mart philosophy, and it's very dangerous because then all of a sudden you become a commodity, an aerosol can on a shelf. The process of doing that with something that's a craft I think, is impossible. It's also stupid to go down that road. There are a lot of different shades of blue, and when you work with one of two people, you're going to get the same shade over and over again.
Peter: It seems very un-American.
C: What about working with directors? Some of you have worked with pretty high-profile, interesting directors. What's that like? Charlie, you cut a lot of Michel Gondry's stuff, did you get to work one on one with him?
Charlie: Yeah. It was incredible. Like, I spent a whole year cutting his stuff, with him on the road, like, sleeping on my couch. I always find that directors, no matter what their reputation is, they're there to do their job. They're not assholes, they're artists. Gondry, Ralf Schmerberg, all these guys, they're there to get the best work. They're not there to bitch about the coffee.
Lucas: The only time they're assholes is when they can't come in the room or when they get there, and they only have five minutes.
Sloane: I've come across a lot of interesting people who say, "I want to know what the director thought ..."
Maury: And then there are the times when the agency does not want the director involved.
Lucas: A lot of the time the director's own production company's got him booked on another job.
Jason: I think on good projects with good agencies, the directors are always involved.
C: Doesn't this all come from the client? Aren't all these problems are because agencies won't say no to the client?
Peter: Yeah, the client sees it and says, " I don't like shot two, just cut it out." But shot one and three don't cut together!
C: We have two women at our table. It's interesting, there seem to be more prominent, talented female editors in commercials and film than there are directors. Why do you think that?
Sloane: It was originally a woman's job. In the silent era, it was all women. Men didn't want to touch it. They thought it was like darning socks. They didn't think it was interesting. So, women, in the beginning, it was all women editors, and men when they realized it was an art form, and they got in and they never entirely pushed us out. (Laughter)
C: Yvette, you're a third generation editor?
Yvette: My aunt was a film editor, working with Sidney Lumet and did a lot of documentaries, worked for Saturday Night Live. She actually cut the trailer for The Exorcist. I think back then, editing didn't get credited.
Sloane: It wasn't considered to be a prestigious job until Eisenstein came along, and this word montage came up. In movies where you have a meeting with the director and he's a man, he's looking at you going, I've got to spend six months in a dark room with this person. They think it's going to be, like, a marriage. You're, like, literally, six months in the dark room together. And I don't' think that happens in commercials.
Yvette: In advertising, you only get that women have a certain sensibility versus a man's sensibility. But I see it as a craft, not a gender thing.
C: So how do you deal with that? Everyone in advertising has to deal with being pigeonholed, but being a woman, you'd suspect it's even worse.
Sloane: I do think that part of my sensibility is the fact that I'm a woman. I like very dark, disturbing things as well as soft, fluffy, girly, Dirty Dancing type stuff. But in terms of my sensibility, you can't extract the fact that I'm female from my experience of the world. It's just not possible. And if people want to come to me because they think that my view of the world, which happens to be female, is what's going to serve them in their spot, that's fine with me. And, so, you know, I get all the baby footage.
C: Time for the lightning round! What are your "What the fucks!" of the business?
Jason: You're asking us to be negative.
C: The directors at our last round table loved this one.
Chris: Because they're always saying, "What the fuck!" (Laughter)
C: OK tell us your favorite thing about the job, or your biggest challenge.
Charlie: Putting the Xbox controller down. It's very tough.
Jason: The coolest thing I think is that the fear of TiVo killing our jobs, is now making our jobs better, with the internet and having more freedom to be more creative. That's my positive.
Mike: Fresh set of dailies that no one's cut before. It's exciting, always exciting.
Maury: My biggest challenge is the schedule. That's the only thing that frustrates me all the time.
Yvette: I've been lucky to have directors that I work with all the time. It's wonderful having that first cut.
Bill: For me the biggest thing is time. I'm greedy. I would take five more days if I could, and if we could have no tapes ever. I hate tape. Why don't we have files? There's so much trafficking cost involved with agencies and tapes.
Stephane: I love seeing something that I have never seen before, that blows me away. That's really inspiring. Timing's a big issue, but budget is huge also. It's kind of restraining.
A waiter walks in with a cake.
C: Time out, everybody. It's Peter's birthday!
(Group Sings "Happy Birthday")
Chris: I don't have to say my "What the fuck"?
C: We'll cut, and then you can keep going.
Chris: I agree with Stephane, when you see something that you really never expected, it really charges you. Even sitting in this room talking to peers, it's exciting, and helps you understand why you do it for so long and why you dive in and beat yourself up and puke before a job and all that kind of stuff. I guess my "What the fuck!" would be, when are they going to get it about 16 by nine as opposed tofour by three? (Laughter) Hi -def can't come soon enough, and I'm dying for everything to be rectangular.
Matt: The marriage of everything and just being able to apply instinct and raw feeling to something, to make something with a lot of passion is what I love most. And my "What the Fuck!" is, nine times out of ten, is why isn't there more money for music? If there is certainly music that's better, whether it be working with a music house for ten weeks, or being able to buy a track, why can't we do that? Why do we settle for something slightly not as good?
Lucas: I think that the most painful, the most exhilarating part of the job is being forced to tell people what you think on a daily basis, being forced to put your opinions on the line. The first time you play that first rough cut is the scariest feeling, but it's the most alive you feel. I think my "What the fuck!" would be, what the fuck's up with all of the other editorial houses undercutting each other all the time? There's a reason why the budgets get smaller, it's because other people will agree to them. And I'm not going to say who they are, but some people definitely are known for it, and some people aren't. (Laughter) You guys gotta stop doing it.
Sloane: I just have to say this is really cool and I want to come to everybody's cutting room. I have something to learn from everybody here. My biggest challenge in spots is making everyone happy, negotiating that place where you want to please the director, the agency happy and the client. My "What the fuck"? I've worked in rat-infested cutting rooms with no air-conditioning, no windows, churning out movies. We have it made. I have no "What the fuck."
Peter: There are always a bunch of constraints, but I love what I do, I've been doing it a long time and still have passion for it, and I'll continue to do it. It feeds my soul. Otherwise, I'd have a guest house in Cape Town.
Charlie: The best part about the job, is, everyday I come to work, I learn something. From a director, the agency, or another editor. Everyday I feel richer. My "What the fuck!" is, why am I on set, ever? (Laughter)
C: Is it like making the sausage, you don't want to see it?
Stephane: You're the last objective person in the line. The agency's been on this project for months, the director's been arguing with them for weeks. And you truly are just getting it clean. I like going on sets, but that's because I love filmmaking. But as an editor, I think it's a terrible mistake. (Laughter)
C: Do you guys ever think about going into directing?
Lucas: I think people that are really into editing are really into film in general. To me, writing is the natural progression from editing more than even directing, but I did a little directing and I cut the spots, too, and it was like the most amazing project I've ever worked on because it was just your vision and you know exactly what you want.
Jason: Were you mad at yourself, why you didn't get that shot? (Laughter)
Lucas: Not really, but I did think I was a better editor than a director.