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.
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.