Eight years ago it would have taken a psychic to predict that Emily Dennis, very much a bohemian artist, would be editing top-level commercials, despite the fact that her father is commercials director Allan Dennis. She grew up in Brooklyn immersed in advertising, but intended to make her career elsewhere; after graduating from Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied painting and print making, she stumbled into a job as singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega's personal assistant. "I was just out of college and here I was balancing this woman's million dollar checkbook," Dennis says, "when I could barely balance my own."
Nine months of administrative monotony forced Dennis to seek what she really wanted. "Editing was this all-consuming process that I could lose myself in, like painting," she says.
Now just 30 years old, Mad River Post's Dennis has the distinction of being "by far the best editor I've worked with in the United States," says Tony Kaye, who most recently worked with Dennis and Mad River/L.A. editor Livio Sanchez on the poetry in slow motion of the Nike Olympics campaign. So smitten was he with Dennis, in fact, that Kaye has extended to the editor an open-door collaborative invitation. "One project she'll be aggressive, another she'll know how to hold back and be poetic," he enthuses. Not only can she interpret a director's vision, says Kaye, but she also understands balance, shape and form. She stands out from so many editors in the U.S., he believes, "who cut and paste all the same way. They will not look carefully at the film because they're too concerned with putting their stamp all over it."
"The best thing about Emily is that she's not looking for a hot cut," echoes freelance art director Patrick O'Neill, who worked with her on an AT&T campaign from McCann/New York. "She's looking for the right thing for the project." And that, O'Neill adds, comes to her pretty intuitively.
Indeed, a woman's intuition may be handy in the male-dominated world of postproduction. There are still directors who refuse to work with a woman, Dennis says, and there are jobs "when the crew comes in and it's the boys club," though she adds that this is beginning to change. She's proud she was asked to cut Kaye's big-budget Nike Olympics spots and an earlier Wieden & Kennedy Nike spot called "The Revolution Will Not be Televised," which rewrote Gil Scott Heron's lyrics into a basketball rap. "I was pleased that my gender didn't get in the way," she says. "I feel that women are making progress, and that's important."
Dane Johnson, a senior VP-executive producer at Saatchi & Saatchi/New York, who has worked with Dennis on several projects, including a Kaye-directed Bell Atlantic campaign, thinks the commercials bias against women in the editing room, which ironically is where many women have long played a role in feature films, is a missed opportunity. "I think women are better film editors than men on certain projects," Johnson says. "They have a sixth sense when they look at film; they can often pick out visceral and emotional qualities in a piece of footage that a man can't see."
With heroes like Martin Scorsese's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Dennis says she indeed aspires to film editing. In the meantime, her commercials reel has a variegated filmic thrust of its own. There's an offbeat Vans commercial directed by Jeffery Plansker; a funny b&w dialogue spot for ESPN starring actor Tim Robbins; a Benetton spot from TBWA Chiat/Day/New York with intriguing cuts and fades; the above-mentioned AT&T Solutions spot, which is effects-heavy; and more scenic wonders with Kaye, including spots for Bell Atlantic and an upcoming Blue Cross commercial.
Once Dennis decided to turn from being a rock star's glorified valet to the film business, she took an apprentice's post at New York editorial house Even Time. That's when she first heard about a piece of equipment that appealed to her artistic background-the Quantel Paintbox, which she imagined as a sort of virtual canvas for painting on film. So, in 1990, she took a job at New York production company Charlex as owner Alex Weil's assistant.
"She was extremely creative-almost over the top," says Weil. He credits part of her success to her vivid thinking, which at the time surfaced in abstract filmmaking. It was definitely further out there than the work she's doing today, Weil says. "It was totally bizarre painting with film."
After a year at Charlex, however, Dennis says the digital essence of the Paintbox began to leave her cold. "I missed being in the throes of the editing room," which she says is "more tactile and physical" than operating a Paintbox. So she briefly took a job at Crew Cuts before moving to California, where she worked at the Los Angeles and San Francisco offices of Mad River. In '94, she returned home to join the New York branch, which opened that summer.
It was in California that the new editing technology finally caught up with Dennis. "There was a period when it all went digital that I lost something that I love about editing," she reflects, explaining that it comes down to the fact she loves the process more than the result. "I still sit at home and bitch about