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September 12, 2003

Tacit Knowledge -- Digital Film Editing

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

How do ideas (and perceptions, observations and such) come to you? Can you bring them into being at will? I usually can't. Things tend to occur to me at their own pace and in their own way. I'm able to get away with a little drilling and mining, but the results aren't usually fab. My system has never responded well to being ordered around, and has grown less tolerant of bullying with age.

Most of what does occur to me arrives unplanned and unsought -- and often, alas, when it couldn't be more inconvenient: in the shower, as I'm crossing a busy street ... It's such a regular feature of the way my brain, such as it is, seems to work that I sometimes wonder whether sheer inconvenience doesn't somehow function as a spur to my imagination. What's a guy to do? Me, I try to adapt and play along -- which, in practical terms, means that I carry a pen and some 3x5 cards with me at all times, dorky as that is. Should something intriguing choose to set sail across my field of awareness, I can get it down on paper.

I try to keep alert to the muses even when it comes to blogging. Unlike many bloggers, I'm happiest writing associatively -- bringing together a lot of this-and-that, and figuring out ways of ordering and presenting these scraps that are entertaining and might even make a little sense. How best to do this? My perhaps boneheaded solution: keeping postings under construction for a loooonng time -- a few hours, even a few days. That way, if something useful or amusing should choose to show up when, say, I'm at the salad bar getting lunch, I can jot it down and later work it into the posting. Or maybe not! Gotta keep these options -- even the negative ones -- open and alive whenever possible.

What's provoked this self-indulgent bit of narcissizing -- and I'm a regular Cloud of Unknowing today, aren't I -- was a conversation I had the other night with a movie editor. I've talked to a fair number of editors, and over the last 10 years what the talk has always turned to is tools -- specifically to the way that their craft's tools have gone digital, and to how that has affected their professional lives as well as the quality of their work.

It's all pluses, no? Faster, easier ... What's not to like? And there's no denying that computers have made the executing of cuts much faster and easier than it once was. But is physically making the cuts all there is to film editing? The digitization of film editing has led to hurry-up schedules: get that job done faster! Computers also make it easy (in a physical sense, at least) to create alternative versions of scenes and sequences, even of entire movies. And bosses (studios, producers) want to see those versions. Bosses like having options to choose among -- who knew?

Another thing computers have led to is a disruption in the craft's apprenticeship system. In the old days, editing assistants worked side by side with master film editors; the craft was passed along in that way. These days, an editor sits alone at a monitor while the assistants are in another room entirely, sometimes even on another floor, tending to computer chores. Perhaps most odiously, the computers have enabled studios and producers to throw many teams of editors to work on a single film at once -- this is called "gang-banging" a film. It's a wonder any studio movie these days has any personality at all.

One thing the editors talk about especially fascinates me, and is related to (and allows me to pretend to justify) the longwinded couple of paragraphs I began this posting with. It's that in pancaking time -- in enabling an editor to cutcutcut -- what gets lost isn't just wasted time, it's creative time. Cutting at the computer is mighty efficient if you measure efficiency in terms of cuts made per minute. But what the editors have discovered is that what used to seem like disposable down-time -- the minutes they spent rewinding, and hanging strips of film up -- was in fact time they were making use of. The "wasted" time that was built in to the job allowed their minds and imaginations to mull things over and come up with ideas and solutions -- to be creative.

You know how the choppiness of today's movies is typically explained by reference to the tastes of the TV-and-computer-raised generations, blah blah? Editors tell me there's another element at work here too. Which is this: What they've found is that, when your creativity isn't able to function -- when it's been pancaked out of the work process -- you tend to try to make up for it by going faster. Busy-ness and agitation -- kapow and ker-slam, what I think of as fake energy -- take the place of creativity, sensitivity and imagination.


Oh, here's a good piece that the veteran film director John Boorman wrote for the Guardian about what it's like to make movies -- both blockbusters and indies -- these days.

Free-associatively yours,


posted by Michael at September 12, 2003


I read or heard somewhere that Steven Spielberg still edits "the old fashioned way." He doesn't use digital technology. I think he said he doesn't think digital represents the way the final movie looks quite right. Plus, I think it's partly respect for tradition.

Posted by: annette on September 12, 2003 9:11 PM

Yeah, that's an interesting point too. They're editing movies on video monitors, and the image just doesn't look the same as it does projected. They often can't quite tell when a face becomes recognizable, for instance, or how much can really be seen in a dark scene. The good ones, and the ones with a little budget and time, do their best to get it projected on a screen regularly. And then they often realize they've got to go back and un-edit the film some -- there's apparently a real temptation to edit really fast when you're working on a TV screen, and projected up big and clear it's just too much.

Still, I don't think too many people are going to go back to working the old way...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 12, 2003 9:47 PM

Also, on the amateur level, I just had the honor of watching my 15-year-old daughter's first video. She took some home movies of my 2-year-old son, edited them together on her Mac, and added a pop song. The result was to highlight how her little brother swaggers through life with rock star self-confidence, utterly sure that he both is and deserves to be the cynosure of every situation. Not only that, it was pretty funny. As an old amateur moviemaker myself, I still can't get over how easily my daughter can do things with computer editing that my friends and I struggled mightily with or could never do at all in our college-student days.

So from that point of view, while Hollywood moviemaking will probably always be Hollywood movie making, a whole different level of expression may arise. This amateur moviemaking may bear the same relationship to Hollywood as blogging does to print.

Hmmmm. Maybe a post. Technology and the spirit of amateurism.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 14, 2003 11:09 AM

Does this mean that the "cutting-room floor" is now uncluttered? That nothing lands on the cuttingroom floor, but instead unwonted scenes are sent of to vast and yeasty ether of digitized space......

what? o, you can dispute taste after all?

Posted by: degustibus on September 16, 2003 10:16 PM

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