Though the creative brainstorm was collaborative, Liebowitz's infectious experimentation contributed to Pytka's IBM work in 1997, when the distinctive blue letterbox style was unveiled, on a spot called "Virus." Despite all the freedom he enjoyed with Pytka, Liebowitz learned a lot of solid lessons. "Pytka was the ultimate film school, especially for commercials," he recalls with awe, pointing out some of his most well-absorbed Pytka-isms. "The best spots let the viewer close the loop. Rather than being over-obvious by using too big a voiceover or too plain a take, Joe trusts that people are going to understand a certain amount of what's going on. That's something I definitely learned from him, and I use it when I'm approaching anyone's film."
Giving up control doesn't mean losing the editor's discriminating eye, however. "People love to watch people," he notes, quoting another Pytka principle. "A great face, a great expression is gold. It could be just 20 frames long, but if you get a perfect reaction shot, or the perfect little expression, you run with that. When you're cutting dialogue, the best thing you can do is to focus on the person who is hearing the dialogue in the spot, not necessarily the person talking at you, because that person's reaction allows you to feel something about what's being said."
On the subject of Liebowitz, Pytka himself is deeply impressed. "He has very good, deep cultural references," says the dean of directors. "In one spot, I referenced 2001: A Space Odyssey and shot it in the way Kubrick would have shot it in 1968, and it went over everybody's head. Adam said, `You know, people won't get this.' When you reference Kubrick in the `60s, he understands the deeper cultural references. I'm older, so my cultural references come through experiences. His come through awareness. He's a very intelligent guy, very erudite; a complete person as opposed to a just mechanical filmmaker."
After his Pytka experience, Liebowitz became a partner at Crew Cuts, Santa Monica, and two years ago, he opened his own shop in New York, accompanied by editors J.J. Lask, David Bradley and Matt Silver. At Go Robot, he continues his long partnership with Pytka, and also applies his well-learned lessons to the work of other top directors, including Radical's Lenard Dorfman. Dorfman, one of this year's DGA nominees, directed last year's AICP-honored IBM Olympics "Local Hero" campaign, via Ogilvy & Mather/New York. Liebowitz pieced together a pair of spots that told the stories of a Harlem fencer and a female biathlete, the latter an editing tour de force. A third, which features a female basketball player from Senegal, was ably edited by Lask. "What's great about Lenny is that he's fearless," Liebowitz says of Dorfman's skill in capturing people honestly on film. "He's pretty brave about going out there and asking a million questions. He's a great interviewer and digs out what's really there. He's got a great gut for people." The spots quilt together soundbites and scenes of different people in the athletes' lives to tell each competitor's story. The editing was unusually challenging because of the spots' documentary style and the hours of footage Liebowitz "got a lot of leeway" with. "I think it's always hardest to do a true documentary, because you have to tell what could easily be a 15- to20-minute story in 60 seconds. It's probably the most fun stuff to do, as well. It's a chance not just to be an editor but to be a little bit of a reporter. What are the five or 10 lines that are going to tell the story about somebody perfectly?"
Liebowitz's most recent work includes three Pytka-directed jobs for IBM, Sony and American Express. One of the AmEx spots, "Constant," features an intense and focused Tiger Woods slowly striding through crowded city streets. "Joe shot it at high speed and slow motion," Liebowitz recalls. "I felt like it needed more tension, so I did a lot of rapid jump cuts and skip framing and made an aggressive music choice to give it a feeling of chaos and energy. I thought, `Let's keep this fresh. What would get your attention on TV?' There are so many Tiger spots, but you've never seen this Tiger before."
Liebowitz says that he finds the best stories and ideas when he stays in the cutting room and avoids the set. "I think that sometimes you get biased when you're there," he explains. "There would be those times you'd be on set or location and you'd see it was so hard to get that shot. It's good to be part of the process early on so you know what's going on. But when you're watching the video feed on the set, sometimes you see something that ultimately doesn't get captured or doesn't come off in the same way on film once light's been exposed to it and it's been processed. As an editor, hopefully you treat the film as fresh and as honestly as `What you see is what you get.' There's a small opening where you can bring something unexpected to the process, and usually it's for the better."