Aspects of Editing – 3 Qtr, 2021

 

As someone who both loves and admires the art and craft of editing, you are no doubt already familiar with such industry legends as Walter Murch, ACE; Anne V. Coates, ACE; Dede Allen, ACE and Thelma Schoonmaker, ACE (just to name a very select few). But I would venture to guess you have never heard the name Charles Steinmetz before, and for good reason – Charles Steinmetz isn’t an editor. He’s actually an electrical engineer from the early 20th century who despite standing just over four feet tall was considered a giant amongst his fellow peers such as Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.

If you aspire to have your name listed amongst editing legends someday – or if you simply want to optimize your own creative potential (without sacrificing your well-being in the process) – I will argue that in addition to studying the works of other editing legends, you also need to become familiar with the story of Charles Steinmetz.

The most relevant example of Charles’ brilliance as it relates to the craft of editing (as told in Life magazine in 1965) goes as follows: Henry Ford had invited Charles to his Dearborn, MI factory (sometime in the early ‘20s, the exact year unknown) to solve a problem with a generator. Upon his arrival Steinmetz rejected all assistance and instead requested three simple items: a notebook, a pencil and a cot. Steinmetz then set up shop and listened to the generator for two days and nights while scribbling computations.

On the second night he requested a ladder, he climbed up the generator, and he made a very specific chalk mark on its side. He then asked Ford’s engineers to “remove a plate at that mark and replace sixteen windings from the field coil.” Upon doing so the generator performed to perfection. [Life magazine, May 14, 1965] Ford was of course elated with the results … until he received an invoice for $10,000 (over $200K in today’s dollars).

He balked at the figure and requested an itemized bill to better understand why the cost was so high. Steinmetz unapologetically and confidently provided the following itemized charges:

Making chalk mark on generator $1 Knowing where to make the mark $9999 Despite this story having never been told in any study of cinema history, the reason I find it so relevant to our corner of the industry is because it illustrates the disparity between the perception of what we do as editors versus the true value of our unique craft.

As editors we are paid to generate ideas and to solve incredibly complex problems. It’s our job to know ‘where to make the mark’ when nobody else does. Unfortunately, the industry perception of what we do – and more importantly how we are treated – is much more akin to the factory workers ‘punching in’ at the plant rather than the specialized engineer solving the plant’s most pressing issues. We are replaceable contractors simply paid for our time, not necessarily for the value our expertise brings to a project. And over the years and decades this perception of editors as small cogs in a much larger machine has led to us being treated (and treating ourselves) as nothing more than extensions of our workstations.

I believe this, in turn, has led to a work culture largely built upon fear: Fear that unless we’re literally tapping our keyboards every minute, we’re not actually working; fear that if we step away from our desks for lunch or to take a walking break, it’s our fault if deadlines aren’t met; and most importantly the fear that if we prioritize our health and well-being above the needs of the project, we’re just ‘weak’ and need to ‘suck it up.’

After all, getting healthy is what the next hiatus is for, right? Burnout should not be worn as a badge of honor. As a feature and television editor with 20+ years experience (my current show is Netflix’s Cobra Kai), I’ve experienced my share of depression, exhaustion and outright burnout more times than I care to admit.

Thankfully I’m no longer the only one who sees our health and well-being as a top priority. In a recent podcast interview I did with ACE president Kevin Tent, ACE, he adamantly expressed: “I think that promoting a healthy mind and body is something ACE should do to help our other editors. We work so hard that we need to keep our heads on straight.”

Having the president of ACE champion the need for us to prioritize our mental and physical health is something I can absolutely endorse 100%. But slowly transforming our work culture from one that champions endless hours with short turnarounds, working through meals and racking up endless sixth and seventh (and 20th) days, we need to not only talk about the need for better health, we as ACE members need to lead by example in order to inspire lasting change.

We not only have the opportunity but also the duty to set the example for the next generation of editors and assistants that our physical and mental well-being should be prioritized because we want to deliver top notch work, not at the expense of doing so. And the place we need to begin is making it an acceptable practice to regularly step away from our workstations.

As Kevin states: “I started out on film, which was very physical. You were constantly getting up, reaching, putting up reels … you were moving. Now all of us sit. And that’s not good.” This is similar to a sentiment that Carol Littleton, ACE, expressed in our interview together. “If I was working with a Moviola I would stand all day long. You would be rewinding film, splicing … you’d constantly be in motion and always moving film around. When I moved from film to Avid the first thing I noticed was that I was far more sedentary. Sitting andsitting and sitting and sitting and sitting just drove me crazy.”

There are a million small changes we could make to ourdaily routines to become more active (many of which I’ve written about and discussed on my ‘Optimize Yourself’ blog and podcast), but collectively I think if we’re going to affect real cultural change these are the three commitments we should all make to set the example for future generations.

1. We must set the example that it’s okay to regularly step away from our desks and take a walk.
The great thing about taking walking breaks as a regular form of activity is that it’s something virtually all of us can do on a daily basis, and not only does it not cost us any time, it saves us time as it enhances our ability to be creative and solve problems. According to a study at Stanford University, a person’s creative output increases by an average of 60% when walking1.  Walking literally boosts creative inspiration and
makes us more productive.

Like me, ACE president Kevin Tent wholeheartedly embraces the daily habit of taking walks not for the sake of burning calories but for the sake of boosting creativity and becoming better editors. “All the editors out there, when you’ve been sitting in the chair after lunch for the last four hours – go for a walk and get some fresh air. It’s really helpful creatively and physically. It’s okay to want to take a walk every day.
You never regret a walk.”

The best thing about taking walking breaks is they’re a fantastic opportunity to work through complex problems and find creative solutions. Which means that time spent away from our desks shouldn’t be met with guilt or pressure to ‘get back to work ASAP’ – it should be embraced as an opportunity to think deliberately about our next choices as opposed to tapping away at the keyboard simply for the sake of ‘looking busy.’

2. We must set the example that regular recovery time is required, not optional.
The human brain is simply not capable of solving complex problems and being highly creative for more than about six hours per day, yet this industry (and our American work culture as a whole) has evolved to thinking the solution to being more productive is simply working harder. And in service of working harder we sacrifice essential recovery time such as meal breaks, sleep, weekends to recover and vacations to reboot. After a certain point, more hours do not equal better hours.

I understand and can sympathize with the ‘feast or famine’ nature of our industry and the ongoing fear that work might never come along again, so we ‘can’t say no,’ but I guarantee at the end of our lives we’ll never regret not having worked enough. But we will absolutely regret the nights we couldn’t put our children to bed in person, the vacations we skipped because schedules had to be pushed and the weddings, funerals, graduations and recitals missed because cuts simply had to be delivered.

In order to not only be more productive but more creative artists, recovery time on a daily, weekly and monthly basis is absolutely essential, and we must set the example by no longer putting the insane deadlines before the need for regular recovery.

3. We must emphasize the importance of learning to work smarter (and de-emphasize working harder).
Sure, we’re all ‘in the trenches’ at certain points of any schedule and we have to push through to meet a tough deadline. I totally get it. But in general, is there enough room in your day, and is there enough energy left over in your tank to significantly work even harder than you already are? I would strongly argue that working harder and ‘finding more time’ is no longer a viable solution. The only solution is better time management and learning to work smarter.

If I were to poll 100 editors asking them “What is the most important tool you require to be a successful editor?” I’m fairly confident I’d get just short of 100 editors that respond with variations of the same answer “My editing software” (whether Avid, Premiere, Resolve, etc.). While it’s not difficult to argue that our NLEs are the most essential tools for our craft, I would argue an equally important tool to be more creative is our calendar.

Yet how many of us actively prioritize mastering our calendars as tools of the trade? If we’re going to set an example for our colleagues and for the next generation of talent, we must begin to emphasize time management as a metaskill necessary to prioritize the space we need to solve complex problems. Similar to a marathon runner, we must learn to cognitively pace ourselves for the long run rather than the constant sprint after sprint that inevitably leads to burnout because we’ve pushed ourselves too hard.

Charles Steinmetz didn’t punch the clock and bill for the hours he sat motionless on his cot staring at the generator, he billed for knowing where to put the mark when nobody else had the solution. And in turn Henry Ford didn’t pay Charles for the hours on his time card, he paid Charles for getting results. It’s time we collectively agree that as editors and complex problem solvers, we should prioritize the value we bring to the project over the hours we are present and begin setting the example for future generations that it’s not only better for our creativity to prioritize regular breaks, recovery and our time, but our well-being (and our sanity) literally depends on it

 

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