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Last month, a group of the industry's finest editors—whose combined experience totals 150+ years—spent one of the last pleasant afternoons of the summer on the SoHo House rooftop with Creativity discussing the joys, peeves and changing tides of making the cut.

Participants: Mike Elliot, Mad River Post; Dick Gordon, Spotwelders; Don Kleszy, Blue Rock; Gary Knight, Final Cut; Adam Liebowitz, Go Robot; Ian Mackenzie, Mackenzie Cutler; Paul Martinez, Lost Planet; Sherri Margulies, Crew Cuts; Avi Oron, Bikini Edit; Owen Plotkin, The Now Corporation; Tom Scherma, Cosmo Street; Deb Schimmel, Optimus; Sam Selis, Charlie Uniform Tango

C: Let's start with the simple question of how you describe your role in the creative process.

Avi: It's like I have to be all the hands of all the people involved. And once I put the spot together, I find solutions for all these pieces. It's not about cutting the picture and putting it together; my role is to offer a total creative solution for the spot. It's more about putting on a couple of hats and finding the best solution for music, visuals and copy.

Dick: I think each of us brings a unique solution to the whole problem, but also there's the role of managing the whole postproduction process, which is sort of different from the creative aspect of what we do. As far as running the job, making sure it gets done efficiently, there are a lot of creative decisions that go into that. It's really like wearing two hats. When I'm alone in the room offlining, that's really different from when the clients come in and suddenly you're trying to explain the decisions you made. But you also need to be aware of the issues they're facing. I try to be sensitive to the fact that sometimes they've gone for months trying to get this idea approved internally, and then by the client. And if the first thing they hear out of my mouth is "Your idea doesn't work . . ." You've got to manage that dynamic even if you know where it is you need to get to.

Sam: That's a really good point, but also we're their creative partner and the last unbiased point of view in the process. We haven't been a part of all that extra stuff that they're considering, and we can attempt to tell the story the way they originally meant for it to be told, without getting all that baggage that they're now carrying and the rest of the agency and the client has expectations for. So if they give us that time that they used to give us [laughter] we can be their last clean point of view.

C: Do you ever cut to boards at all anymore?

Don: Sure. There are still products that are tested to death, so by the time I get them it's been through so many rounds of testing that you don't really have any freedom.

Dick: I like to try and get the film, not look at the boards and have as clean a slate as possible. It's a fun exercise to do your first cut and then look at the board. Sometimes shot for shot it's the same thing, and other times it's completely different. So then you have to go ahead and cut the board. But it's interesting to see what your own solution to the film is, as opposed to interpreting the film through the concept itself.

C: We talk a lot about how in the last couple of years, clients got more risk averse—they don't want to take risks with creative and sometimes you see it in the work. Do you find that's gotten worse?

Tom: It's a tighter economy. People are more conservative in general. There's less risk-taking than there was five years ago during the boom.

Ian: I find the creative to be quite good these days. Maybe there aren't really breakthrough things, but overall the level of the work that we do is pretty good. None of us have to do very much hard-sell stuff at all. It's all good storytelling or some sort of unique approach to a visual story.

Dick: It's bouncing back. I was talking to somebody about this the other day. I feel like there were three major events in recent history. The first was the dotcom bust, then you had 9/11, which obviously had major effects on the economy and the climate, and honestly, I found Janet Jackson and the Super Bowl probably had more of an impact on people's tolerance for risk. It really seemed like that affected clients and agencies. They got scared of anything that was edgy, but now I think it's coming back. But I blame her personally.

C: Do all of you like to do multiple cuts?

Adam: There are certain points when you start calling them cuts versus assemblies, whatever it is. I kind of stand behind this idea that I'm presenting this to you as a cut, versus my assembly.

Avi: But I do present them as cuts, three, four different versions—not because we have two different scenes there or different music.

Adam: But to me, I'm trying to do this one without the guy walking in and that's a different assembly of ideas. That separation is kind of important in my own head.

Avi: I enjoy the process of researching the bare cut. I always push myself to go in different ways because it's exploration and I can see which one is better, but always keep them as my cuts. I don't mind if I like one better than the other. I always expose the agency to more rather than less.

Mike: Creatively, I think we're in the year of the remake. We're remaking television shows into movies; we're remaking movies into other movies. Things are getting recycled at a furious rate. It gives me a sense that something is about to change, another way of presenting information or ideas that's not in the bounds of what we're doing right now. The system of delivery, the 30-second commercial, is in a state of flux right now. There's a huge diffusion of all the places where media and advertising and ideas can be presented, and I don't think this bodes badly for us as a group.

Don: Everything's going to end up on phones. Most creatives look at cuts on little QuickTimes. If we send a DVD, it's a big deal.

C: Do you all find that you're getting more opportunities to cut things outside of the spot, like branded content projects?

Dick: There's the whole viral phenomenon. You're cutting 30-second spots now that really aren't so much to sell the product as they are to get you to the website with information that will help sell the product.

Deb: Sometimes that's actually a really great experience. I've worked on some spots where it was just all improvised, there was tons of extra footage that couldn't work in a 30-second spot. We did three different spots and there was so much extra stuff they ended up doing internet spots with that, and it was fun because they were two-minute pieces, a chance to do something totally different.

Ian: Did they have an editing budget for that? I think we're going to be cutting a lot of formats for a while and we're going to have to figure out how to budget for that.

C: How are you doing it now? Ian: Now it's like we're doing favors. We're basically cutting :30s, giving junior editors the opportunities to do the internet stuff, we're just sort of waiting till it develops.

Deb: It's sort of treated like a glorified agency cut—we'll do this, too.

Don: But even what you can call a cut that you can charge for is in flux; all of that talk before about trying different cuts is generally on our own time.

Mike: We're having to push so hard to stay on top of the technology in terms of delivery through the web. If you cut something that's two minutes long, you can be hard pressed to find someone who's willing to sit there and download it unless you find clever ways to conceal or hide the compressed parts so it unfolds in a timely fashion. Agencies are turning to editorial companies all the time now in terms of the delivery of that. No one has sorted that out completely.

C: Lightning round–everyone tell us briefly what they think is the biggest challenge.

Dick: Really, the challenge is the business model. How do we survive this transition? Clients are not used to paying for that stuff. It's becoming as important if not more important than the 30-second spot. They're going to have to start taking more responsibility for the importance of that and figuring out some sort of compensation system .

Don: Keeping the Avid up to date.

Paul: I think those two things go perfectly together. Business model and technology. We're going to have to deliver more, figure out how to cover that overhead. It's a complicated moment. It's brutal, actually.

Sam: Another big thing is fitness. For an editor. it's very difficult. Seriously, this is more about being an editor than editing, but finding a balance. I have two kids, and it's knowing when you can go home.

Deb: It can be frustrating because we're the last step in the chain, kind of where all the problems go. A lot of times people just don't appreciate how much of your time is going to be taken up.

Gary: The time limits on how long you've got to produce an edit have come down quite dramatically. A lot of the jobs I've been cutting recently have to go out a lot sooner. They're simply nervous about something. I'm not quite sure why. They still expect the same product and number of versions. And you don't want to piss anyone off. But they come in expecting all these techniques, and if you haven't had the chance to ferment that, you look like an idiot.

Ian: I think the biggest challenge is how we maintain the way people value an editor. Now everybody can have an editing program on their laptop, and I feel like it's very easy for people who don't have experience with editing to think that it's very easy. People will call up to try to bring us a job sometimes and they think it'll take a day and a half. And usually, if they don't have that much experience in the business, that means a week. You look around the table and most everyone here has 10, 15 years of experience or more, and how do people get educated to value that, and do we know the value we have? The time pressure feeds into that. The fact that we get the dailies on Friday and we have to show four spots by Monday? OK. They'll wait a week for the right director but they won't move the ship date. Editors are the ones that get squeezed.

Adam: Editing was always about a certain amount of stamina, anyway. You see that guy at the cutting machine going like that. You've got to sit there, concentrate and get through all those takes.

Gary: And then you've also got the agency cut vs. the director's cut. I always invariably have to split it into two edits and it becomes difficult to appease both sides.

C: What about working with agencies vs. directors? How often do you sit down with directors?

Paul: I think a lot of directors are being forced to work a little closer with the agencies on the edits. You used to have that time when the director comes in and works with you, then you show his cut. But that rarely happens anymore.

Mike: But it's a great guide to what's good about the spot. It teaches you something about what they shot and how they shot it.

Don: I think that in the process of getting thrown back and forth, it usually gets better. Rarely does it get beaten to the ground. It usually does get tweaked to a better place.

Mike: I think the biggest challenge is that process of reinventing. Reinventing an editorial company or an editor reinventing himself over and over, as the taste levels, technology and the look of commercials changes. You were mentioning that we all have a trick or something special we do. That wears out. Graphics or comedy, a certain kind of joke telling or visual, as that permeates our business and gets worn out—not a single person at the table hasn't had to reassess themselves.

Avi: I think the essence of putting a story together never changes. It's all the same for me from day one. Telling a story is telling a story. You can refresh yourself by trying to maybe do different styles, but nothing changes from my point of view. The basic tools we need for storytelling are there, and I don't feel like I want to reinvent myself. I think there's enough there for us to do something interesting. The question is, how do you do things that don't look generic?

C: But don't you have the luxury of saying that because you get to work with Noam Murro and a number of great agencies? What happens when you have to cut a piece of crap? Do you ever have to save somebody's film?

Avi: A lot of times. Of course, definitely. You get some film sometimes that's not great and you have to do something with it. That's the challenge.

Adam: Hollywood's having a crappy summer because there's a trillion ways to be entertained. And what you described, you're relying on the fact where there was a culture of commercials—you knew the spot was going to be there, you knew someone was going to absorb it. Before, you could rely on the fact that a commercial was going to air during football, it was going to be a big moment with 50 million people. Now, people could spend $100 million trying to reach a micro market.

Ian: You're saying it's filmmaking. The background changes, the objectives change, but it's still filmmaking. I do think that the language of filmmaking does evolve, though. I feel like there's a lot of shorthand we can use now. You don't have to stay on things as long. I look at some spots from the '80s, and back then they seemed so quick. Now you look at some of those older spots that were breakthrough spots and they feel really slow.

Dick: It's the tolerance level. As you get used to MTV and watching videos, you get used to absorbing information that much faster.

Adam: But the format matters, because what's going to sell in a movie theater and what's going to sell on a phone is not nearly the same; not just the editing techniques but the thinking behind it, the styles.

Mike: It's not so much cutting for different media as it is that the language adapts. You look at films ike Memento compared to a comedy from the '30s, and the landscape of how you deal with time and the geography of a room is not nearly as conventional as it was 50 years ago. We have to stay current with the language of how people stream things. Teenagers watch stuff on their cellphones. Maybe we're not going to be watching on our cellphones, but they are and they're the market.

C: We've heard about virtual editing, having the director in the room with you even though he's 3,000 miles away because technology has made that possible. Have any of you done that? Was it a good experience?

Sam: I'm working on a job right now where the director asked me if I had iSight so that I could just point on my screen and she could sit there with me and look at the film and we could talk about it.

Mike: We have our own system and there are a couple of directors I work with in L.A. that I've never sat in a room with. The thing that's so cool is that you have your camera in your room and your output in your Avid and you can control what they see on the other end. You can watch them watching, which is not a luxury you can get when you're present. Some people like it, some people don't.

Dick: I found it a little creepy, I have to say. I got dizzy.

Ian: Posting spots on the internet is really prevalent.

Dick: That's huge. That's really transformed things.

Ian: That's almost better than having the virtual hookup, because you can work on it for a while, then post something. It's actually a really good thing.

Dick: But again it creates more work because you end up having to mix it differently if you know it's going to be on a posting vs. a DVD.

Sherri: But it gives them time to think about it—they can form their own point of view without hearing yours and why you got to where you are.

Sam: There's a lot of power in that little neck turn, when they say something and you just kind of turn around and give them that look. They get self-conscious.

C: What about music? Do you cut to music a lot? It seems like the issue of demo love almost seems like it's born in the editing room in some respects.

Dick: It depends. If it's a pure dialogue spot, to me, it's about the musicality of the language. That becomes the music bed, in a sense.

Paul: I screen my dailies with all these different CDs and I try to keep that beat. But it's within reason. I try not to be playing things like Pink Floyd, I have music that I know is at least somewhat buyable for a client. You start playing things that are like a million dollars, you're screwing yourself because they're never going to buy it, they're going to have to rip it off and it rarely is as good. I try to compile music I know they can buy.

Owen: A lot of times I'll cut to a track just because it pushes it in a new direction. I'll fall in love with that track and cut and cut to it, but I know that tomorrow I'm going to try something else.

Avi: I always listen to music as soon as I get the board, before I see even one frame. I set up my mind in terms of tonality and direction. When I watch the dailies, no music for me. Nothing. Once you put on a track you're cheating yourself. When you watch the dailies with a track there, you're evaluating the dailies differently. It's very painful to go through the dailies, but I don't give myself any break. It's very hard.

Dick: Because it's about your emotional response to the film and it can be tarnished by the music, something that's not inherent in the film itself.

C: Some agencies have their own editing shops. How is that influencing your business?

Dick: I think we've lost the easy money, the tagging, the versioning, a lot of the stuff that helped to pay the rent. That's all gone in-house now and really what we get are the high-end projects, which is great. That's what we want to do, but you've lost that revenue stream.

Ian: I think creatives will always demand to go to an editor they believe in. There may be an in-house editor they trust, but how long will that person stay there?

Sam: You don't take every job to the same director; every job has a different need or style. If you have an in-house editor it doesn't mean that just because they're there you're going to funnel the work to them.

Dick: Cost consultants have had a much bigger influence on the industry than in-house has.

C: Sherri, your company has done something pretty radical for the industry, switching over completely to Final Cut Pro.

Sherri: I just think it's a much friendlier application to work with. I really love it. It's much more flexible, much more open. It's format-independent, so it's not like how am I going to deal with the whole multi-format thing.

Avi: How do you bill for that?

Sherri: It's the same. Once you start to set it up, you don't really save money. You don't do it for money, you do it for the tools.

Adam: But why is it so slow? There's a delay. There are 20,00 people who want to cut their DV skate video and 800 of us. That stuff is built for that, not for having 11 creatives in the room, when it has to move and go fast.

Don: I think Avid works really well. It's extremely intuitive. I don't even think about what I'm doing for an hour at a time. I'm talking about that one stage where you're just vibing out.

C: What is the evolution of the editing company? Is the editing company going to represent more things, more services?

Owen: I think we're filmmakers in the advertising business, and whatever advertising calls for we should try to deliver— and that may mean going beyond cuts. Dick: I went through a period where I was nervous about the future and then I realized we are going to serve a central role regardless of how things change. We're starting to get jobs that aren't going through agencies. They're coming straight through clients. But they still need an editor. I think the more media you have, the more vital the editor becomes to help navigate those pathways.

C: How are you going to create value for that?

Mike: It's very hard for an editor to claim responsibility because you are beholden to the agencies to get that work. If it's in the film where it got solved, our job is to find that and discover that. It's a bit like a book editor. A great novelist has somebody telling him how to throw out tons of stuff. In a feature, it's the same thing, the editor is guiding that process. But if we don't do it in a stealth manner, it's a curse.

C: How does an editor define a great director? Sherri: You can see a point of view in the film. When you look at someone who doesn't have a point of view, you see a million takes of nothing.

Dick: You can just tell when you get the film. You have a visceral reaction to it. It's good film, it's dense you can pull things out, you can explore it. It's engaging to work with it. And then sometimes you get film and it's two-dimensional. It's not alive.

Owen: Do you ever notice that when editors are looking at dailies they have this grin, this "editor's" grin? I don't know if it's pain, or what it is. I catch myself having that look.

C: What about clients evaluating your reel? Does the average client have an idea of what makes a good cut?

Ian: With more aggressive styles of editing, where there's a lot of cutting, you can sort of say, "Oh, wow, that's working." With less cutting and more dialogue, it becomes more about whether it's a good cut or not.

Avi: I'm not sure that agency people can actually evaluate edits. I think it's the overall spot. I don't think they can tell if it's a director, the music company or the edit.

C: Finally, what does it take to be an editor? What kind of temperament is required?

Ian: You have to have an odd combination of personality traits. You have to be kind of a worker bee; the kind of person who will sit down and go through all the film, which a lot of creative people might not have the patience for. You have to be a bit of a film nut, but at the same time you're not there to be this big auteur who has all the glory—you have to be able to just like to sit there and work, but you also have to have that creative side to be successful. A lot of people have one or the other, but I think it's kind of rare to find that worker bee mentality in a creative person.

Mike: You have to be incredibly patient.

Paul: You have to be a freak.

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