At any ACE meeting 20 years ago, near the front of the meeting hall was a table of well-dressed white-haired editors engaged in spirited schmooze. We younger folks referred to them endearingly as the ‘alter kockers.’ Alter kockers is a Yiddish phrase literally meaning ‘old shits’; these fellows were anything but. The alter kockers were the most respected editors. They dressed for the part, wearing crisp white shirts and ties, some sporting three-piece suits. Many of these men served in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, or as Art Seid, ACE, used to call it, double-ye double-ye eye eye. Seid lost two brothers during the war. You could sense the lasting pain when he recounted the story. Many at this table of alter kockers also served as assistants to the editors who pioneered film editing during the silent period. They were part of a chain of learning and adding to the language of film. Most of the ACE membership owed their film knowledge to them.

Fred Berger, ACE; Axel Hubert, ACE; Ted Rich, ACE;  Ed Abroms Sr., ACE; George Grenville, ACE; Jim Blakeley, ACE; Bernie Balmuth, ACE; Fred Knudtson, ACE; and Dann Cahn, ACE – to name a few – sat around the table chatting about the good old days, war stories, the next generation (damn kids today), and of course new bodily aches and pains. Many of them were still working, as studio post managers would find them work in the special projects departments.

 

CinemaEditor at the time was not as fancy as it is today, but I ate up the stories written by the alter kockers, enjoying their reminiscences from the previous generation, talking about irate producers tossing Moviolas out windows or how the L.A. River used to flood all the houses around Universal before the Army Corps of Engineers built the concrete wash. And then in the blink of an eye, I found I was one of them sitting at that table at the ACE meetings. It is now my time to reminisce.

In 1980 the country was mired in recession; I was living in San Francisco, fresh out of art school, shooting mostly rock videos, when I found a stable staff job at a commercial production house called Snazelle Films. My title was post production manager. I made $180 a week. From a cubicle I ran the KEM and projection room rentals, recorded, mixed and transferred sound, shot test spots and inserts, as well as assisting on the big commercials and editing the smaller local spots. In my three years there I cut hundreds of commercials and industrial films. Snazelle had four editing rooms featuring large eightplate KEM tables on a blanket of shag carpeting. For Greg Snazelle the dust factor of shag was not as important as the room looking stylish.

On my first day on the job I met the post-production manager I was replacing. She grudgingly came in at the end of the day to show me the screening room. The room was a study in mid-century modern opulence. About the size of a half basketball court, it had a large conference table, chrome and white Formica display cases featuring Snazelle’s numerous awards, comfortable Eames lounge chairs, all nestled in a patch of omnipresent thick chocolate-colored shag carpets.

She quickly demonstrated how to thread the massive 35 mm double-system projectors and how to run them. I was then told that a feature production was coming in to screen dailies around 8 p.m. that I should practice a few times … good luck, I’m leaving, don’t call me. That night I rolled dailies for a major film starring Carol Burnett and Alan Arkin. This led to me projecting dailies for major productions when they were shooting in the city. A highlight was the dailies screenings of 48 Hrs. I had a chance to hang out with 19-year-old Eddie Murphy who was mainly known to Saturday Night Live fans at the time.

He would trail the group keeping to himself and often looked exhausted after the long shooting days. We would trade a few words about the vibrant San Francisco comedy scene. While working on Return of the Jedi, the Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) people were shooting explosions at the Cow Palace using Snazelle to screen the dailies.

This gave me the opportunity to work with VFX editors Conrad Buff, ACE, and his assistant Peter Amundson, ACE, picking up dailies from the lab and preparing them to screen for the brass. They were shooting dynamite hung high above the camera with a special 1500fps camera. It took weeks to get the shot.

Six years later, I found the shot and used it to blast out the MacGyver logo in the main title. This led to one of the biggest career decisions in my life when they offered me a plum job at ILM. My heart was not in visual effects with the endless count sheets and distance from the rest of the storytelling process. I turned it down as I became more interested in the transition from film editing to nonlinear editing.

One day, two scruffy-looking young guys rented one of the KEM rooms and locked themselves in for intensive editing. A grey plume of cigarette smoke would billow out the door when one of the guys would rush out for coffee and supplies. When I entered the room to help them with equipment, all thefilm was secreted away. Their conversation was minimal.

After a week they asked me if I would project their film. The two filmmakers found comfortable seats on Eames lounge chairs. In the projection booth I laced up the projector and hit run. The 16 mm work print flickered on the screen, I couldn’t believe what I saw and had to dash out of the projection booth to find another witness. I returned with our receptionist. Upon seeing the continuing movie, her eyes widened in disgust and wonder. The first scene features porn star Traci Lords, a cute cheerleader type who looked underage. She enters a stately Victorian house eerily void of furniture. She walks to the center of the room, squats, lifts her skirt and urinates on the floor making an expanding puddle. The rest of the movie repeated this motif with different (dare I say) ‘actors.’ After the screening I had the unique ability to speak to the filmmakers about their art. This was the first time I had heard of ‘golden shower’ movies.

I learned it was made for a theatre chain on Kearny Street across from Tommaso’s, specializing exclusively in ‘golden shower’ movies. This was my introduction to San Francisco’s vibrant world of porn. I would run into characters from this world on and off for the next three years. Best to leave these stories for another time, perhaps over beers at Tommaso’s. Snazelle’s productions were legit large-scale commercials. I learned to loathe the various advertising execs and their clients. To me, it was a world of soul-sucking dazzle. I was assisting on a Chevron spot shot by a prominent cinematographer featuring beautiful horses running in slow motion. The editor was surrounded in the small editing room by a dozen advertising executives. A very long discussion ensued about the music.

The assembled geniuses discussed scoring, and which famous composer to bring in, or perhaps use a pop song, what would best enliven this beautiful footage? In the end, the culmination of heated debate resulted in using the regal music from Ordinary People (1980). The title song was getting a lot of airplay, I mean really a lot of airplay, it was hard to go a few minutes without hearing it from a soft-rock radio station or oozing from an elevator. There was no way they were going to clear it for an advertisement. Fortunately, I knew it was based on “Pachelbel’s Canon.” The next day I had a stack of records from Tower Records. We spent two days listening to many versions of the song with the attention to nuance I have only witnessed from advertising executives desperate to justify their jobs.

They drove me mad with their singular determination to listen to these versions over and over again, convincing themselves this was elevating the horse montage. It was not. We eventually found consensus with music that made the spot look as generic as possible. From then on, I refer to the tune as “The Taco Bell Canon.” I still have PTSD-like episodes when I hear it. After locking picture on a campaign, I would send the work print to the neg cutter. If we were in a hurry and needed the negative overnight, there was a $50 ‘expediting charge.’ In showbiz ‘expediting charge’ was ‘80s-speak for cocaine.

The cut negative was boxed and ready for pick-up at 6:30 a.m. As a routine I would grab the box and head to the airport. I flew to Burbank from SFO on Pacific Southwest Airlines. There was a $29 ticket vending machine near the gate. I would show up at the airport with the film and saunter to the plane, no security, no fuss.

At the time, the finishing houses in L.A. were palaces catering to advertising executives. The rooms were designed for comfort, using materials like old barn wood, thick shag carpeting (it was all the rage), and cozy couches. They showcased well stocked kitchens with gourmet chefs, cute ‘cookie girls’ who would come by with freshly-made baked goods, and menus to the best restaurants in L.A. Years later, finishing video no longer involved executives. The task was handed off to lowly associate producers and assistant editors. Because the houses no longer needed to impress, the lavish delicacies vanished. These days finishing video is accompanied by bare-boned kitchens stocked with bargains gleaned from Smart & Final.

Sometimes I would have to stay overnight in L.A.; Snazelle booked me into the Dunes Inn on Sunset. When I first heard, I was imagining a luxury spot, possibly a sister to the Dunes in Vegas, but the reality was the Dunes at the time was a dive. The night filled with the noise of drug deals and hookers like living in a Tom Waits song. My L.A. experiences tempered any desire to leave picturesque San Francisco.

However, looking into the blank eyes of veteran film editors who worked advertisement and corporate videos I saw my San Francisco future. I saw the jaded shells of these filmmakers as they poured their hearts and souls into training videos and filmed corporate reports. I could see myself with shoulders hunched, squinting through reading glasses, pasty and sun deprived, surrounded by agency execs arguing the nuances of the “Taco Bell Canon.” I knew a short stint working in Los Angeles would give me enough street cred that I could return to San Francisco and pursue higher level work. I had acquired a thick Rolodex of Los Angeles producers who rented KEM tables and used our screening room for high-paying, crowd-pleasing entertainment.

In 1983 I loaded my belongings into my VW Bug and drove down to sunny Los Angeles for what I thought would be a two year education. Now, living in L.A. some 40 years later I am struck by the alter kocker greeting me in the mirror.

 

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