Past, Present and Future of Editing in Isolation

June 5, 2020


Teaching film editing at University of North Carolina School of the Arts this semester, I felt almost guilty after spring break, because the transition to teaching online from home was so easy.  It felt natural.  Precedented.  Even ideal.

Like writing, motion picture cutting is a solitary occupation; we sit in front of our computers, just ourselves and the work.  Ultimately, of course, all aspects of filmmaking are social; editors interact daily with directors, sound designers, composers, visual effects artists and others.  But, yes, we spend many hours alone.

What’s more, while working together, directors and editors have always done so in relative isolation — sometimes in editors’ or directors’ homes — even when movies were assembled on celluloid.  As Paul Hirsch tells us in his engaging, enlightening memoir, A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away…, STAR WARS was put together at George Lucas’s place in Marin.  Likewise, Bill Reynolds and Peter Zinner edited much of THE GODFATHER at Francis Coppola’s San Francisco lair, American Zoetrope, a safe distance from Paramount Pictures’ executive suites in Hollywood and New York.

Early in my own career I assisted Susan E. Morse in a makeshift post-production suite at New York’s Stanhope Hotel, a venue chosen to protect our director’s privacy.  We cut his next picture in a former card club on Park Avenue.

Years later, in 2004 — fully digital — I edited STRANGERS WITH CANDY at writer/director Paul Dinello’s country house, far from the madding crowd of midtown Manhattan during the Republican National Convention.  Paul and co-writer Stephen Colbert, working on other projects, used Skype to see each other’s reactions to new material.  So, even though we didn’t show our work to producers on the internet, the only thing missing from a 2020 workflow was use of the word “workflow.”

After STRANGERS, I continued to assemble movies in residential spaces whenever I could.  Mine.  Directors’.  Another abode in a small upstate New York town.  Producers and executives viewed rough cuts via password protected links or on DVD, then emailed notes to us.  In Los Angeles, my productivity soared as directors and I eliminated both studio lot distractions and two hour roundtrip drives through the city’s clogged arteries from our daily regimens.

Years of cutting remotely, then, made it natural and easy for me to mentor fledgling editors online this spring.  I simply taught an already common industry practice.  Students watched my reactions as I reviewed their material on Zoom, just as Colbert and Dinello had seen each other’s on Skype.  And we minimized typical on-campus distractions such as unscheduled office visits and rambling questions in the classroom.

Watching students’ thesis films via Zoom was just like watching them at school with mentees physically present; my home monitor is the same size as the one in the office, my home audio system is better.  We worked in broad strokes – addressing story, character and performance issues – but we also examined and tested each moment’s effectiveness down to the twenty-fourth of a second, as Zoom’s screen-sharing let me view Avid or Adobe Premiere Pro timelines edit-by-edit, just as I would in a dedicated post-production suite.

So, for me, an online-only curriculum entailed sharing — with conviction — what I’ve done many times in the past two decades.  Passing along a workflow, if you will, that the industry as a whole embraced fully during Covid-19.  My pedagogical response to the pandemic, then, kept students abreast of current Hollywood practice.

Motion pictures that completed principal photography before cities required sheltering in place are now in post-production in the homes of editors, assistant editors, sound editors, visual effects editors and music editors.  Some have even executed ADR (automated dialogue replacement), teaching actors to mic themselves and record domesticatum; others have even begun final sound mixes away from studios and dedicated post-production facilities.


Before residential film-finishing could proceed, of course, cyber-security concerns had to be addressed by studios plagued by bootlegging and leaking of unfinished content to the public.  But all seems to be going well.  Among the movies home-posting now are DreamWorks’ TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO SEVEN, Paramount’s TOP GUN: MAVERICK, Warner Bros’ THE SUICIDE SQUAD, Disney’s CRUELLA, Sony’s VENOM 2, Universal’s THE BAD GUYS, Warner’s SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY and a host of smaller projects, including documentaries.

I mention those movies because their editors were generous enough to join my students and me in Zoom meetings.  Normally, I take graduating seniors to Los Angeles at the end of the year to meet master filmmakers and get a sense of the city and its most lucrative industry before moving there to work.  This year, of course, there was no trip.

But videoconferencing let me bring L.A. to the grads.  Instead of visiting Bad Robot the class Zoomed with with STAR WARS (EPISODE VII and IX) editor Maryann Brandon, ACE and sound designer Robbie Stambler (both currently working from home on VENOM 2).  Longtime JJ Abrams associate Josh Tate joined us as well.

Over the course of 6 weeks the students and I also chatted with Zene Baker, ACE (THOR: RAGNAROK); Inbal Lessner, ACE (CNN’s DECADES series); Julio Perez, ACE (EUPHORIA); Fred Raskin, ACE (ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD); Tatiana S. Riegel, ACE (I, TONYA) and John Venzon, ACE (THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE).

In addition, we simulated an annual event called “Reel Talks.”  Usually held poolside at The Garland Hotel in North Hollywood, “Reel Talks” are informal conversations with alumni in the industry, during which recent grads get a sense of how long it might take them to get a foothold as professionals and how to accelerate the process. Catherine Linebarger, post-production supervisor at Disney TV Animation and head of UNCSA Alumni West, gave very useful tips about when and how to maintain email relationships with prospective employers without seeming to stalk them.

Other more recent grads covered such topics as getting their first union jobs, starting as post-production assistants, working in trailer houses, working on music videos and the like.  Because ours was a virtual Hollywood gathering, East Coast alumni were able to participate, too, sharing stories about editing at venues such as Google and The New York City Ballet, and about working on independently produced East Coast features.

Despite how rich internet classes were, however, many aspiring filmmakers at UNCSA and elsewhere felt frustrated by an exclusively online curriculum.  But I think the experience prepared them for work in the industry more than they know.  It’s unlikely, after all, that editors (not to mention composers, casting directors, sound editors, studio executives and screenwriters) will ever go back to a pre-Covid19 work model.  No one will say, “You know what I really missed?  Being in bumper-to-bumper traffic a couple of hours every day.”

Consequently, studio post-production executives and editors now contemplate scenarios in which editing crews come to the lot, say, every other week.  And reduced commuting, made possible by online work from home, will do more than just diminish cutters’ stress and fatigue.  It will align well with Hollywood’s push toward “green, sustainable filmmaking,” an encouraging trend already making headway before the pandemic.  Environmentally-conscious plans of action include hiring sustainability coordinators on every movie, going paperless, using LED lighting, banning single-use plastic water bottles on set, making sure production caterers serve organic locally-grown food, providing recycling and compost bins and more.

Another favorable outcome of a cutback on commuting — for students and professional filmmakers – is having more time to read, listen to music and watch movies.  And this will make us better at what we do.  Sheltering at home with films, books and recordings we love, during Covid-19 and beyond, will inspire us.

Sheltering in place, I’ve finally risen to the challenge of perusing David Foster Wallace’s gargantuan 1996 novel, Infinite Jest.  Early in the book and ironically (for me, not the author), Wallace’s writing about what he called “telecomputing” or “videophoning” — essentially using platforms like Zoom — addressed drawbacks of incessant screen-to-screen meetings.

“It turned out,” he wrote, “there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces. Videophone consumers seemed suddenly to realize that… traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay even close to complete attention to her…

“Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable.  Callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener’s expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges.  Those callers who out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or pants-crease-adjustment now came off looking rude, absentminded or childishly self-absorbed.  Callers who even more absentmindedly blemish-scanned or nostril-explored looked up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end.  All of which resulted in videophonic stress.”

Yes, okay, video chat does, initially, entail a certain amount of pressure.  From having to demonstrate focused attention through an entire meeting.  From being concerned about personal appearance, lighting choices, backgrounds and framing.

But what’s happening in filmmaking isn’t that we’re replacing voice-only communication with audio-visual transmission.  We’re substituting audio-visual meetings for in-person get-togethers. For encounters in which we never did doodle or adjust the creases in our slacks… or worse.  And in movie-editing, “video telephony,” as Wallace called it, is here to stay.

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