I feel like I was the last person on earth to see this movie. Positive reviews were flowing all over twitter while it was in theaters and I could never seem to drag myself to the theaters, even though it seemed right up my alley. Crime drama, slow burn story, awesome actors, intense violence, fast cars, 80’s vibe. Whatever the case, I didn’t get to see this until it finally came out on blu ray, and it completely decimated me. The artistry of it is kind of hard to believe in this day and age, where the people with money can’t seem take a risk to save their family’s life. A lot of industry talk with the film has centered around its use of dissolves, and that is what really struck me as well. Personally, I am not a big fan of them. They have to be used sparingly, in my mind, and only at specific times. This comes from a lot of abuse early in my career due to a producer that required them on every transition. Well, this film just threw that ideology back in my face, and time and time again proved that the dissolve needs a rebirth of sorts. On top of that I think the actor Ryan Gosling is a force to be reckoned with and every movie I see with him these days hammers that point home.
It has been a while since I have put the time and effort into one of these breakdowns. It took a scene of this caliber to throw me into action, and I am so glad I did. There are so many things I learned through studying this over and over, and I hope you can glean something from it as well.
Most of my analysis is from a film editorial perspective but there will certainly be comments that deal more with directing and the other disciplines. First, I have to give credit where credit is due. Drive was released theatrically in 2011. The Director was Nicolas Winding Refn, the Film Editor was Mat Newman, and the Cinematographer was Newton Thomas Sigel. In new form I must include the Sound Designers, Lon Bender and Victor Ray Ennis, as well as the Composer, Cliff Martinez, who I am guilty of forgetting to credit in previous posts. This scene comes right after the notorious elevator scene at the 1-hour, 13-minute, and 23 second mark and is just over 2 minutes long.
1) This is actually the last shot of the previous scene, but it leads nicely into the scene I have been looking at so I included it here. It is the completion of a pretty intense scene in the movie where the main character, known only as Driver, utterly destroys another man in an elevator while his love interest looks on. At the end of the scene she has exited the elevator and Driver is left standing there as the door closes. Through the last couple shots there has been a steady tone playing in the score. Just after the sound of the elevator door shutting, another deep tone rises in volume and leads us into a hard cut to the next scene.
2) From the well lit elevator we move to the dark interior of Driver’s car as it speeds along. Now, in addition to the steady throbbing tones that have continued on from the last scene, there is the introduction of a loud distortion like effect on the sound design. It sounds like a mixture of crackling, wind noise, and car engine sounds.
It is appropriate that we smash to this new scene after the violent explosion that finished out the previous one. Emotionally, we are still reeling from what happened. After the actual act is finished, the editor gives us us a 30 second moment of silence to let it sink in and then uses this hard visual and auditory cut to wipe the slate clean and lead us somewhere else emotionally.
3) We cut to a close up profile shot of Driver. We have not seen his face since his reaction after the murder, and for the rest of this scene we never look him directly in the eyes, but only get to see a side of him. It is extremely fitting that we never get personable with him, the cinematography mimics his guarded personality.
4) The slam of a car door marks the cut to a new setup. The character Shannon is meeting up with Driver, who has been waiting for him. This is another profile shot of our characters. I love the long pauses that populate all the dialogue scenes in this movie. After slamming the door, Shannon limps up to Driver and it is almost 5 seconds before Driver says anything, and when he finally does there is a good pause between each phrase. It gives weight to every line.
5) Almost as if it were an exclamation mark, we go to a new shot of headlights on the road from the perspective of Driver back in his car. Going back to the delivery style I brought up in the previous note, it is what allows this cut to accent Driver’s line, “and they know where I live”. Because we have been conditioned to accept these slow deliveries and long camera shots throughout the movie, when a jarring cut breaks into one of these pauses it emphasizes that previous line. I feel like it empowers editorial decisions to be used more as punctuation than in the average film. Editing is the invisible art but movies like this show that it can also be brought to the forefront as a visible player in the film’s style.
6) Back in the two shot between the cars, the camera continues dollying in as Shannon states his case in true wimpy Shannon fashion. Oh, Shannon.
7) As the cutaway to the car acted as a post accent to the dialogue in shot 4, this car cutaway is used in a similar way but to accent what is going to happen next. It gives a little dramatic separation between Shannon’s excuses and Driver’s response. This shot is very effective in that way alone, but even more so due to the quick breath that Driver takes right before the cut. So not only does it have structural importance, but material importance as well. This breath emphasizes the physical outburst Driver has in the next shot. Even though this car shot exists in a different time and space it ties directly into the shot that follows, as if Driver’s first reaction to Shannon is a angry breath. The motion of the quick breath initiates the cut as well, tying the two shots together and softening the actual cut a bit. This just reiterates how important footage selection is for an editor. This section of the shot is so deliberately put here and so beautifully impacts the beginning of this scene.
8) Driver leaps out at Shannon, grabbing him around the neck, and slams him against the car. He then asks, “What did you say?”. After such a large and violent outburst, this quiet and controlled line delivery is a perfectly contrasting match. Also, the thump sound of Shannon’s body hiting the car works so well. It nicely compliments the other, higher pitched sounds of fabric rustling.
9) Here is another cut to the profile shot of Driver in his car. I won’t say much more about the emotional punctuation, but it works as the exclamation point to the previous shot. I do have to comment on an editorial style point that is widely used here in this scene as well as throughout the film. At the very beginning we see Driver in his car and assume it is a linear story vehicle to get from the scene in the elevator to the scene with Shannon. That he very literally drove from one location to the other. But as the scene goes on you get more and more shots of him driving, and less and less assurance of “when” he is driving. Looking over this scene, time and time again, I don’t know if these driving events would have happened after the elevator or after the conversation with Shannon. That is kind of the point though, it doesn’t matter when he did this, it only matters as a way of rearranging and accenting the scene at hand. There are many other scenes where this non linear storytelling pattern is used and it really creates the whole vibe of this film.
10) This is the last cut for a while. It is also the beginning of a shift to another editorial style largely prevalent in the movie, a style of using very long dissolves and superimposes across a scene. What feels so different is these dissolves don’t happen in the usual sense of showing the passage of time.
The camera has continued its dolly move into the actors. A couple shots ago we were in a medium wide shot with both characters living in the center of the frame. Now we have travelled into a medium close up where the characters are heavily weighted to the left side of the frame, almost in an over the shoulder shot from behind Driver. It is a wonderfully executed camera move that slowly transforms over the scene to get us closer to the actors as the intensity of the scene picks up. In a lot of cases this would happen by going to closer and closer shots as the scene progressed but they achieve this through one camera move intercut with the non linear car shots.
Drivers starts to say, “I should F#@*-ing kill you” and the first of many dissolves begins. The dissolve lasts between 4 and 5 seconds and resolves into the over the shoulder shot inside Driver’s car from shot #2.
11) Just as the dissolve finishes transitioning to this shot, we hear a loud musical note and then Shannon’s line, “I just wanted him to know, that as soon as you returned the money that was the end of it, that’s all”. By going to this shot the line is being emphasized. Visually, we don’t have as much to focus on as when we were looking at Shannon’s face, so the alternative encourages more focus on the auditory aspect. Such an interesting way to highlight a line of dialogue. This point is reinforced by the shot selection here. We cannot see very much in this shot other than some of the dials and the headlights on the street outside the car. This gives us even less to look at in the shot, driving even more of the auditory focus. We do have one moment when the passing street lights illuminate Driver, but if you notice, this happens perfectly in between Shannon’s words “know” and “that”. There is also a little string hit in the music just as the lights come up. I might be stretching too much there with finding meaning, but it does seem like more than just a happy little accident. The sound design for this section is more subdued than it was earlier. You can still make out some engine sounds but it does not feature the loud, distorted noise used earlier for the hard cutaway. As Shannon starts his next line, another dissolve begins, returning us to the scene in the parking lot. The dissolve starts on another one of the deep musical notes and, from a visual standpoint, begins as a green streetlight washes over Driver.
12) The dissolve is timed so that it ends just as Shannon finishes his line, “Let me just talk to Bernie, ok?”. It lasted 7 full seconds and then on cue Driver moves abruptly, shoving Shannon as he turns away from him. Within 2 seconds it begins dissolving again. Basically, the only moment the shot is at full opacity is during this shoving motion.
13) After a very quick dissolve we are back in the profile close up of Driver in his car. For the first half of the shot the only thing visible are some streetlights off in the distance. We hear Shannon’s next line of dialogue and then there is a pause. Suddenly, Driver’s face lights up in a pool of green and then, just as quickly, it dissipates. Other than a little glint off his eye, the shot is almost completely black now for 5 seconds. There is also a pause in the dialogue, allowing us to linger on Shannon’s line, “How was I supposed to know everything led to Nino?”. There is no visual or sound except for a bit of driving noise and the synthesizer notes. It is yet another editorial technique for emphasis, driving home the importance of what is being said. We hear Driver’s voice come back in, “They’re going to come looking for me”, and then my favorite dissolve of the scene starts.
14) This film is full of beautifully designed dissolves. Part of it is the timing and decisive nature of when they start and stop, but even more so is the shot composition involved. The location of the players in the frame work wonderfully with each other across the life of the dissolve. In this case we start with a shot where Ryan Gosling’s face fills almost all of the left third of the frame. The dissolve works its magic in all the negative space occupying the rest of the frame. Because his face is the only thing even somewhat lit in the A-side shot, your focus is there. As the brightest part of the B-side shot, the fluorescent lights of the parking lot, start to appear your eye is drawn to the right. You follow the line of lights right to the face of Ryan Gosling’s as it finishing dissolving in from the medium close up. From a story perspective, it brings you in, drawing you from the left side of frame to the right just as Driver says, “and they’re going to come for you, you understand?”. It is such a beautiful finale, where so many technical and aesthetic aspects come together to empower a moment. The fine art of crafting a scene comes from changes; if things get too repetitive we start to detach from story and this whole scene is such a shining example of changes. The rest of this shot exemplifies another pacing change. Up to this point we have not held on a shot for very long at all, there is always a cutaway or dissolve breaking it up. For this final section of dialogue we change that and hold on this two-shot for a full 26 seconds after the dissolve finishes.
15) For the final exclamation point to this scene, we have one more hard cut. The last question in the previous shot is Shannon asking, “what are you going to do?”. After 4 long dissolves between shots, our answer comes in a jarring cut to Driver’s face. Everything in this shot is different from the previous iterations of his profile in the car. The car is stopped and the red glow of the stoplight is washed over Driver’s face. Also, for the first time we see his eyes moving around, as he looks to right and then down. We sense an emotional level that was not apparent in the previous moments from this setting. Shannon’s question was what he was going to do, and it seems he doesn’t know yet, because he puts is head down into his hand dejectedly. It is just utterly gorgeous shot selection.
16) The scene finally ends on another decisive dissolve. With his head down, the shot transitions into the next scene where two other characters are talking. In yet another example of the beautifully composed dissolves from Drive, the foreground face of the incoming shot fits perfectly into the negative space to the right of Driver’s face.
If you want more discussion on this film check out this conversation with Editor Mat Newman. It discusses the dissolves in even more depth.
Be Wonderful and Wise – Lurpak® Lightest Spreadable
One of my coworkers shared this spot with me and I found it so inspiring. Not only will the narrating theme song catch you off guard but it will stick in your head for a long while. Just a warning. I think this is a perfect example of photography and editorial working in tandem to make something truly interesting. You have a wide mix of shots in different styles yet they all live in a close point of view, either of the food or of the cook. It feels much shorter than the 1 minute 10 second runtime and almost requires multiple viewings. Enjoy.
My love for film started as a young boy, sitting in an empty theater watching a final showing of the Star Wars’ re-release in southeastern Pennsylvania. Like many, it captured my imagination but I was too young to realize I could make a career of it. Decades later I left my job as a computer professional and relocated to Los Angeles. After many ups-and-downs in the film industry I discovered that picture editing was my passion; it was the perfect fit of everything I had ever done and imagined I could do. They say “timing is everything” and three years ago I got my chance to edit an independent film called Bedrooms which went on to win two Best Feature awards and recently aired on Showtime. My next project, LJE The Journey, was a Nigerian-American film which became one of Nigeria’s top grossing films of all time as well as winning awards for Best Editing and Best Feature. My current film is an urban music drama called Filly Brown and will be completed later this year.
This is a slight deviation from the ongoing series of Feature Scene Breakdowns that I have neglected for the last six month or so. Being apart of the advertising industry now, I am finding myself much more attentive to the ad work that seems to assault me from every screen I own these days and I thought I should include it in this personal study. One huge upside of being within agency walls is a glorious room full of demo reels from over the years for Directors, Creative Editors, DP’s, FX Houses and even Catering companies (jokes). I have been trying to take advantage of that opportunity to study the work of the advertising realm masters. It was in one of those reels that I discovered this little gem of a spot from New Zealand for the Sky TV news network.
“West Bank” was released in December of 2009. The agency was DDB, Auckland. The Director was Cole Webley, the Cinematographer was Travis Cline, and the Editor was Kim Bica out of Arcade Edit. For me, the beauty of the spot is in how much editorial had to play in its success, and how invisible that hand is. Invisibility has long been a description of the craft and of the editor’s role; which as of late has been changing with the new, MTV-influenced styles. In many programs, the editorial practice has become much more apparent to the viewer. Rather than seamless cuts that distract you from the fact that they are even happening, the jumpcut has certainly become a star player these days. “West Bank” is a very high energy spot that plays out entirely on a battlefield, and lends itself to a jumpcut style. The artistry is that most of the cuts, although jumpcuts by definition, are masterfully stitched together shots that appear to be continuous.http://coldpost.tv/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Kim_Bica_Reel_SkyTV_Editors_Cut_webSM.mov
1) I am a big fan of starting scenes focused on smaller details and then transitioning to wider shots that reveal the environment we’re in. I am seeing more and more of this approach these days in contrast to the old adage of always beginning with a wide shot and then moving into close shots. Here, we open on a close-up of running feet, with the sound effects cluing us into the battle going on around us. Initially, we don’t know how this character plays into the battle because all we see are civilian running shoes and jeans. It is not till he is fully exposed in the next couple shots that we understand he is a Palestinian guerilla. I love how they chose to start with the foot mid-stride and large in the frame. It instantly draws your eye and then pulls you into the shot as it moves into the run.
2) Speaking of hidden cuts, I didn’t even catch this one until I started the writing process. I had already watched the spot numerous times and had even gone through it collecting stills, but didn’t snag this one until the actual breakdown began. The motion at the end of the first shot leads perfectly into this one. The feet are falling down in the frame as he jumps, revealing more of the body. When we cut to a shot of his torso in the same position and with the same relative size, even though things have changed a bit in the background, our brains fill in the gap that the camera kept tilting up to his torso. It helps that within 5 frames the talent runs out of frame and the camera has to catch back up to him. These types of cinematographic choices and the handheld style add quite a bit of energy to the entire spot, making it feel like an embedded photographer is capturing this battle. It’s possible that the editor used the same shot following this actor, but then cut out a second or two of the shot after the jump to condense the action. Right after the camera finishes panning back to the actor, we cut again.
3) The cut point works so nicely because it happens 4 frames after the camera picks him back up and doesn’t allow us to settle in on the character. Just as we see his outfit it cuts to a slightly wider shot where we see him firing his rifle. The sound effects that correspond with him shooting were introduced at the end of the last shot. This overlap of audio is long standing trick to smooth out cuts and give the scene a genuine feel.
4) We cut to a long shot of the ridge where the Palestinian was firing. We have lost the sound of the individual rifle fire and now hear men yelling and a machine gun off camera. We finally see the target, which is a soldier running across the ridge. The camera quickly starts zooming out and panning to the left, back towards where our Palestinian character was. As it zooms, there is another invisible cut I just picked up on as well. Part way through the whip pan, a cut is made to the next shot which is also mid whip. I never would have caught it if I wasn’t moving frame by frame and notice a shift.
5) Continuing the whip pan from the last shot, the camera travels past a man with a molotov cocktail and stops on a crouching Palestinian, before reversing direction and returning to the man with the flaming bottle. It is a great example of using the documentary style camera, where the camera seems to search for subject matter rather than just hit preplanned marks. Within two frames of coming back to the molotov, we have another subtle cut.
6) On frame by frame view this cut doesn’t work as well, there is is even a guy that pops up in the background of the new shot. But I have watched this over and over in realtime with no issues. It is just utter proof that continuity is not as important as we make it out to be most of the time. I can’t say at this stage of my career I would have had the confidence to make this choice as an editor, but I wish I was. The outgoing shot is still panning when the cut is made, the actor is standing in pretty much the same way, the framing is very very close, and as soon as the incoming shot starts the actor moves towards camera and starts his lines. All of these factors distract you from noticing that a cut has happened. Beautiful.
7) We get our first cutaway, of guerillas firing on the Israeli soldiers. It comes right on the talent’s line “Palestinians protested”.
8) Returning to the shot on the Palestinian character’s face, he finishes his line then turns and throws the molotov cocktail. Just as he finishes his throw, the camera whips away from him as if the operator is covering himself from the explosion. The third photo below is the last frame before the cut point.
9) This shot creates a wonderful bridge from the previous to the next; basically tying two different locations together and distracting us from the change. It starts out with a little camera move to the left and a dutch angle that seems to continue the camera movement at the end of the last shot. 4 frames in, an explosion comes from the lower left part of the frame and throws rubble in the opposite direction of the camera move. Just as the cloud of debris lessens, we cut away.
10) The cut to this shot works similarly to the one from #6, the incoming shot is very similar to the last in terms of angle and the buildings in the background. The camera quickly moves in on the new talent, a different Palestinian guerrilla, who starts talking as soon as the shot begins. The camera finishes moving in close to the man, almost over his shoulder, as if the cameraman is taking cover alongside him. A couple seconds into the line, the camera starts to pan to the right and another hidden cut is made. The third still photo, below, is the last frame in this shot before the cut and you can compare it with the first incoming frame of the next.
11) About five frames into the pan we cut to a different take of the same camera move that is in about the same spot. The new shot is much less smokey but has more dirt on the lens. Even though the two still-frames look quite different, you don’t really notice it at real time. Makes me really think about all the times I have fretted over minor continuity issues; wasting precious time that could have gone into story development. It does help that there are new characters firing rifles and a zooming, shaky camera to distract us from the cut. After a couple seconds on the 3 Palestinians, the camera pans back into an over-the-shoulder shot of our speaker, hidden behind the wall. The third still below is of the next transition point, mid dissolve.
2) The transition point here is at about the same stage of the whip pan as the last cut, but this time there is a 4 or 5 frame dissolve blending the two shots together. It is mainly around the gun itself and the luminance of the sky that you can notice the dissolve happening but, as in most of the cuts, you don’t notice it in real time.
13) This is one of my favorite cuts of the commercial. In the last shot the Palestinian fires two shots and then it seems that a snap zoom occurs, pushing into a closer over the shoulder as he fires again. What actually happens is there’s a cut to a different shot that is in the process of zooming in on the rifle’s perspective and then past the rifle into the background. The fact that the second shot is zooming like that makes it feel more organic to me, as if it was done in camera than a cut to a closer shot. Another element it adds is a quick glimpse of a person scrambling in the background as he is fired upon. It is a small point but I think it adds a human element to a group of shots where the Guerillas are mostly firing off camera or into clouds of smoke and dust. We see again that they are firing at other people by actually seeing those other people, even if just for a second.
14) A series of gunshot sound effects leads us into a different scene on the battlefield. They sound very different than the gunshots we heard from the last rifle and the first one overlaps the cut, bridging the two visuals with an audio cue. We see two Israeli soldiers being fired upon. As bullets hit around them, one begins running while the other fires back and the camera moves in on the one running. This movement initiates the cut.
15) In a low-angle close-up, similar to the first shot of the commercial, we get a quick shot of the soldier’s boots as he is running. It is only about a second long, but adds a gritty quality and keeps with the breakneck pace of the spot.
16) Jumping ahead a bit in time and space, the running soldier is now closing in on a fellow soldier against a wall as it explodes in front of them. This explosion is going to be the transitionary element to the next scene.
17) In a new shot, the perspective shifts from third person to the running soldier’s POV. We see the explosion in front of us, debris covering the frame. The camera rocks to the right as it’s hit by the blast and then comes down on some burnt out rubble at the base of the explosion. The sound design helps push this POV with a dull ringing tone that stays over the next 4 shots; the result of the blast on the soldier’s ears.
18) We get an ultra quick, 7 frame shot of a injured man on the ground being dragged by a fellow soldier. I don’t know if he is supposed to be the guy who was running or if he is just one of the casualties of the explosion, but my take is he’s the runner. This is not one of the more invisible edits but rather a jump in space so I don’t think it’s a continuation of the real time feel that has been established. Instead, I think we are picking up a little later in time, from a different perspective.
19) Cut to a profile shot of of a running soldier silhouetted against a smoke cloud. In the previous shot the camera was moving in quickly, which cuts well into this one with a lot of motion, and leads well into the next shot, which is a continuation of #18.
20) Now we have a speed ramp of shot #18, following the running solder to the injured one. I think #18 was a different take than this one in which the editor used a later section of the shot, where this running soldier had already passed the wounded Israeli. This shot starts with the runner further back and plays around 4 times speed (best guess, don’t hold me to this) until he passes the injured man and then the clip ramps down to normal speed. We land in a close up on the injured soldier, who is our next speaking talent. Complimenting the speed effect is a deep, windy sound effect. It is higher pitched during the fast run and then lowers to a rumble as the soldier begins to talk. Conferring with my suitemate, Wayde Samuel, about how to describe it, he theorized that it might be a bass drum hit that was sped up to get the initial wind sound then brought back down to regular speed and possible reversed. Either way it is more proof that sound designers are freaking badasses.
21) After he says his line “A dozen Palestinians have…” we cut to another location where an Israeli soldier is firing his rifle in an over-the-shoulder shot. It is one of only a few departures from the style of the spot, where we see cutaways from different aspects of the battle. It does seem very fitting that this line of dialogue finishes on the cutaway with “been killed”.
22) As a follow up to that line, we cut from the soldier to his POV and the Palestinians he is shooting at. We begin to hear another line of dialogue, “while two…”, as the guerillas return fire.
23) The line is finished by a new speaker, the soldier dragging the injured one; revealed in a new close up. When he is done he leans down and lowers his head; the movement initiating the final cut.
24) We jump to a medium shot behind the soldiers. It’s the most jarring cut in the program, but purposeful. After all the invisible edits and quick cutting so far, it seems very appropriate that we have a cut that calls a little bit more attention to itself and a long 6 second final shot. Right after the cut the camera quickly moves backwards, letting the soldiers fall off into the background as a series of supers type on and the SKY TV logo comes up.
I have to say, after spending so much time with this spot I am really looking forward to working on something that lends itself to this type of hidden editing. Usually, shaky cam isn’t something I gravitate to, but it presents the kind of happy accidents that can make for some beautiful stitching. If you think of any other examples of this style, or anything else you think I should check out for that matter, please add to the comments below.
Last week my boss and Director of Integrated Production here at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, David Rolfe, shared a reflection with our team that was too good not to share. It deals with preparedness in producing, but has such cross-over goodness for editors as well. Usually the producer is our closest companion and strongest champion in the work we do, and I know that my projects would never have reached the point they do without the diligence and support of Gina Vorman, who I have to give a shout out to as we have collaborated on 8 projects here together. We share in the same periods of waiting that the producers do and we can be just as involved in the acts of preparation. As in chess, we should be looking 6 moves ahead and solving problems before they ever occur. Here is what Dave shared with us.
This is a downright hilarious new commercial from Hanes. It seems Cronenberg’s Brood wants us to use recycled goods.
I saw the 30 second cut of this the other morning in the gym and totally fell for it. Not only has the song haunted me since I heard it but the 1:30 cut has so much more detail. It is quirky as hell and has some great scene transitions. I want to be this guy.
I’m starting a new series of interviews with industry professionals to really focus on the relational aspects of the editorial process. Blog posts and bookshelves everywhere are flooded with technical information on the craft of editing, but there seems to be little out there on the human side of it all. Even though we hit all these keyboard shortcuts and plan out intricate workflows, what is at the heart of it all is spending 10-15 hours a day locked in a room, usually with other people, creating stuff. What makes those other people come back to your edit suite instead of walking down the hall to the next one? What keeps those other people from killing you, or what keeps you from killing them? Why do so many editors and directions reference a “psychic relationship” where they instinctively know how the other would proceed with an edit? Some of my questions don’t even pertain to editing alone, but all work that involves relationships and collaboration. I think, especially in school, so much of the curriculum is geared toward the tech side instead of the human side. Unfortunately, I know too many great guys who are wicked machine operators but fall short in the client-relations category. They can soak up intense tutorials and spit out phenomenal work but you put a client over their shoulder who they have to entertain for the day and they’ll keel over. As much as it doesn’t seem fair, a big part of this industry is not based on raw talent and knowledge but on politics, connections, and people skills. You can either fight this truth or decide to train those muscles with the same intensity that you train your technical skill set. Hopefully each of these interviews give you a better idea of how to approach this human side of the business and how to create work relationships that keep clients coming back for more. Some of the interviews will be with editors but I really wanted to reach out to the folks who deal with the editor, the Directors, Producers, Creatives, etc. I think these people can offer a deeper insight into why they work with certain editors and how our relationship with them can be strengthened.
To be the inaugural guinea pig for this series, I went to a man who has been a guinea pig on a lot of the content I have created. I feel for him because he had to sit through a lion’s share of the horrendous student films I made while attending Xavier University. He was the head of the electronic media production program and taught the Directing, Lighting, and Cinematography courses. Through all of it, he was always a supporter of us student, no matter what trouble we were getting into. He would correct us on our techniques and aesthetics, but would never keep us from taking risks or thinking big. When we got enthusiastic he would get enthusiastic, and he was always willing to share from his wealth of knowledge. So here goes, an interview with my teacher, David Smith.
DAVID L. SMITH is Professor Emeritus of Communication Arts at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Since joining the faculty in 1981 he served as director of the Television Center, which was both a teaching and production facility. As a scholar Mr. Smith integrates a background in art, applied technology, and social anthropology in an ongoing quest to balance the traditional media with a more positive and socially responsible orientation. He has written the textbook Video Communication: Structuring Content for Maximum Program Effectiveness.
Prior to his appointment at Xavier he was employed by:
Eastman Kodak Company: (Color Technician)
K&S Films Inc., Cincinnati, OH: (Cinematographer)
Scripps-Howard Broadcasting (WCPO-TV), Cincinnati, OH: (Director-Cinematographer-Editor)
J&R Films Inc,. Cincinnati, OH: (Writer-Producer-Director-Cinematographer-Editor)
Taft Broadcasting (WKRC-TV) Cincinnati, OH: (Writer-Producer-Director-Cinematographer-Editor)
David Smith Productions, Cincinnati, OH: (Producer-Director-Cinematographer-Editor)
WNEO/WEAO (PBS) in Kent, Ohio: (Production Manager)
Mr. Smith has exhibited and published still photography, primarily black & white images, as part of a lifelong aesthetic-contemplative quest. He has self-published a series of coffee-table photography books including: Reverence For Light, Wisdom Of The Spheres, Auto Reï¬‚ections: The Intersection of Form, Light and Color, Milestones, and Patterns.
His black & white photographs can be viewed at: http://www.davidlsmithcontemplativephotography.com/
His color photographs can be viewed at: http://www.davidlsmithcolorphotography.com/
Mr. Smith just finished his latest book, Television That Matters: A guide for writers and producers, with the intent to inspire tomorrow’s program creators and producers to move in the direction of Television That Matters, as opposed to television designed just to maximize eyeballs for advertisers.
GM3- Based on your time spend locked in a room with an editor what qualities created the best relationships. How about the worst?
DS- The best relationships, and therefore experiences, were those where there was an established mutual respect going in. As an editor I enjoyed working with directors who invited creative suggestions, but at the same time respected the director’s final call. As director, I enjoyed working with editors who, as my request, would offer creative options and display them when he/she could, individuals who left their egos at the door. The best working relationships were those where both editor and director had the same goals- to produce the best possible piece or program. Always, it was the outcome that mattered most. How we got to it was always- and enjoyably- a creative collaboration. Going in, we assumed that the other person was highly creative and competent. Also, I will always remember and appreciate working in post houses where the staff was friendly, where the environment was relaxed and elegant, and where snacks & soft beverages, often food, was offered and complimentary. Comfortable, non-stressful environments were high on my list of criteria in choosing post houses.
The worst relationships were the opposite, usually occurring when one or both parties had egos to defend. My worst of all time agency experience was when I was a hired DP-editor for a series of 30 and 60 second spots where the agency flew in “a top-notch L.A. producer-director”. Turned out, the guy was a jerk: lots of attitude and little substance. Or creativity. My team and I worked with -for- him over the course of a week. Suffice to say, this man had serious ego problems. He told me up front he didn’t want any suggestions, ideas, or recommendations from me or the crew. He wanted what he wanted and instantly, without question. And what he wanted was crap- pretty pictures, but little to no communication value! At the time I wondered if he knew the difference between a fade and a dissolve. His belligerent, egotistic attitude made every day an agony. He took the client to two-hour lunches every day and paid the bill while my staff and I were required to brown-bag it and eat across from the editing bench. We shot on film.
GM3 -Looking back now, do you think there was any way you could have created a positive relationship out of the situation? Or was it a lost cause?
DS- We were paid to do a job and we did it. It would have been unprofessional for us to quit. And there was nothing we could have done to change the man’s personality or the climate he created. Considering work relationships- ethics, integrity, and attitude are as important to me as competency and creativity. All are essential. After that situation I never again went on a “blind date” with a PD. And I never again worked for or with someone I didn’t respect. Life is too short. And the outcome suffers.
GM3- Since much of your storytelling perspective comes from a visual background, being a photographer and DP, did you find it was harder to communicate with the editor than the camera department? I guess what I am getting at is whether the editor’s lack of camera background/terminology created a barrier for your communication in the edit bay.
DS- Absolutely! The more the editor knew about camera, lighting, sound, and music the better we could collaborate. We spoke the same language, didn’t have to stop and explain things. Ultimately, the challenge is TO COMMUNICATE to viewers. The more the DP and editor are in sync with the process, the better equipped they are to communicate and create. My personal opinion is that the best editors are those who are also accomplished DP’s. And likewise, the best DP’s are those who’ve spent a lot of time over a hot editing console, taking direction from others. Nothing builds competency like experience. And experience is best gained in situations where there is mutual respect and easy collaboration toward a commonly perceived goal: QUALITY and EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION! Amen.
GM3- I know you worked for a while within the advertising industry, could you give me a little bit of your background at that time and share a little about how the process was working with the ad agency? Where did the line cross from your vision and control, to theirs?
DS- It’s been a long time since I worked with ad agencies- 60’s & 70’s. Back then much agency work was spontaneous: I’d meet with the producer at 8am on location. We’d go over a rough script that the client approved, but even more important was what the spot had to communicate. With that in mind, she’d likely say, “Any ideas?” And we’d proceed from there. Working for a TV station and then independently, everything I produced was local. Nuts & bolts stuff. Jewelry, automobiles, department store sales, restaurants, insurance companies, beverages, fashion, beer, carpet cleaning. Whatever the product, we’d go to the location and improvise through a meeting of minds (producer and myself). There were no assistants. I did everything. For instance when, for a department store spot I got handed a stack of sheets, pillows and pillowcases, the producer said, “Make it look good, I can’t be with you today”. So I made a call to a woman who wanted to do some modeling and met her at a location where there happened to be daffodils. We shot sheets blowing in the wind, backlit with clouds, some in slow motion, close-ups of the woman sinking her head into the pillows with golden sunlight on her hair…and so on. We shot the spot in one day, completed the editing the next, and it aired two days later to promote the department store’s sale.
Fast forward five years and scripts were tight. All of a sudden there were three nervous and overly enthusiastic agency people on every location, all wanting to have their say- while I (as DP) waited to be told what to shoot. And how. Fast forward another three years and now, instead of meeting on location, we met at the post house where footage from three photographers had been gathered to produce a spot that featured- you guessed it- 80% graphics and special effects. I moved away from agency work when the trend to a heavy reliance of graphics and effects was becoming the mainstay of TV commercials. Over the years I produced 500+ local TV commercials. I worked with agency people who were creative and hard working. People I respected. I also worked with people who didn’t know the difference between a C-stand and a light stand, a gobo and a reflector. I worked for over a year with a closet alcoholic and that was no fun at all, trying to ignore his obvious symptoms. People are people.
Overall, my experience with agency people was that they where high on creative activity, soft on communicating. They knew how to attract the viewer’s attention, but not how to communicate. Too often there was little to no understanding of the dynamics of communication- how to effectively convey a message or feeling to a television audience. Bells & whistles, sensational images, keep it moving, fast cuts, blow stuff up, make it sexy or cute. Startle the audience. Transition effects. Not much has changed in that regard.
Regarding control: In my day control was shared between the agency producer and me, the DP. It was a back & forth process of deciding what to shoot and how to edit (often in spite of poorly constructed scripts or no script at all) based on a commonly held vision of what the spot had to say. Content was king. Different people then, as now, have vastly different opinions and styles. Naturally. But most of the agency producers I worked with favored the hard-sell approach: loud, fast-talking, driving music. Hype. I favored the soft approach, especially telling stories and using cleverness and twists, presentations that touched an emotional cord. Our humanity. Universal human experiences.
Producers, directors, shooters, and editors are all looking for opportunities to exercise and develop their creative capabilities. Those who are looking to demonstrate those abilities are the ones I found difficult to work with. They didn’t have their “eye on the ball” so to speak. When we’re so concerned about how we’ll look to the boss, the client, or colleague- or the “impact” of the spot- it’s easy to forget that the purpose of the collaboration is effective communication- the conveyance of thoughts or feelings. Often both.
If I were working with agencies today, I’d be very discerning about which individual(s) champion effective communication and try as much as possible to work with them. Also, given the ease of working with post technologies, if I were an editor I’d produce my own version of the spots I was working on, after hours when no one else is around, and decide later whether or not to show it to someone. Whether or not anyone sees it, I will have gained invaluable creative experience and possible made a contribution to my demo reel.
What makes the workplace enjoyable and enriching for me, is working with people who are on the same wavelength. Chemistry. In my experience, team or partnered resonance produces the best results for the client (or agency), and the most satisfying work experience whatever the role.
GM3- What should an editor know about the director and his personality that would help the work relationship?
DS- Besides professional competence, is there resonance between them? Again, chemistry. Does he or she think and behave- in and outside the office and editing suite- in ways that you respect. An effective colleague is not one who is as competent and creative as me- more or less so. It’s the person who brings to the table skills that I lack and vice versa, along with qualities of personality and character that I respect. Complimentarity, mutual respect and chemistry.
GM3- Do you have any additional advice for those starting their first professional job or beginning to move up to their 2nd or 3rd? This can be from the relationship standpoint or from any other aspect you think is important to focus on.
DS- Qualities of character: ethics, integrity, honesty, can-do attitude are essential for day-to-day interactions. Next: Follow the money! Gain a clear and precise understanding of where and how the organization derives its revenues. Then, slowly but surely position yourself so that you become a major contributor to the bottom line. As you are seeing, MONEY drives the business. The more you contribute to the bottom line the more valuable you become. Easy to say, not so easy to do.
After you’ve learned about the company’s revenue stream(s), latch onto it and take ownership, at first unofficially by producing/editing/playing with the client’s needs after hours and on the weekends. If you can. PLAY with their audio & video. Don’t use the client’s script. DO make the client’s most desirable outcome(s) your outcomes. Edit for that. I know a guy who asked his boss’ permission to come in and use the client’s materials to PRACTICE OR BUILD his editing skills on their most expensive graphics computer. I can’t report the outcome other than he told my class that he got permission, had fun and learned a lot about the computer. Managers respect that kind of initiative. And if they like what you’ve done, they may show it to the client. At least, they will know that you’re “a player,” someone who has a genuine desire (“passion” is an even better word) to do good work and help the company succeed. Also, don’t be shy about sharing your dream with managers and owners as long as it’s something they can help you realize. My experience has been that people in this business love to help people when they can.
One last thing: After you’ve gotten to know the business and you’re taking ownership, think about additional ways it can improve or generate new revenues. When you come up with a good idea, write a one page submission entitled: “What if…” Don’t tell anyone about it. Don’t talk about it or discuss it with anyone. Send it to the top dog (the person who makes final decisions) in a hand-written envelope with a cover letter that says: “I’ve been chewing on an idea for weeks now, and I thought I’d pass it by you to see if it makes sense….” Here too, you will have gained that person’s respect. And now he or she begins to see you in a new light.” Hmmm. Glen’s not just an editor, he’s an idea guy. He’s our kind of people. We need to involve him in some of our meetings.”
GM3- I know you have a story about possibly working with Orson Wells, do you mind sharing some of it?
DS- I was in the studio, supervising a group of students in “round-robin” exercise where each student put on the headset and sat at the control room console to direct a five-minute interview with three cameras. Someone called my name from the back room. “Dave! There’s a call for you. It sounds important.” I took the call. “David Smith?””Yes” “This is… I’m calling for Orson Welles. He reviewed your script and he wants to do it.”
I’d put together a team of thirty international scholars to collaborate on the development of a script for a PBS program on the life and thought of Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (whose writings I’d studied for about ten years). I was awarded a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to write the script. I didn’t get to talk to Orson Welles in person, but his agent reported in that telephone call that he was “so impressed” with the script and was “so honored to do the narration” that he would do it for no cost. (I’d allocated $5000. for him). The rest of the conversation amounted to details regarding the recording of the narration in his home studio. Due to his schedule, he wouldn’t be available for at least a month. He died while I was in the process of submitting the production proposal. Three other principals died while we waited to hear from the NEH. They denied our request for $300,000 but urged us to resubmit with some recommended modifications. The advisory board and I were not comfortable with their recommendations and their submission cycle was an entire year, so the project died.