The Human in the Machine Interview #2: Editor Agustin Rexach
The Human in the Machine is a continuing series of interviews with industry professionals focused on the relational aspects of the editorial process. Blog pages 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 much of our work is technical based, 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 directors 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 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. Even though 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 the work relationships that keep clients coming back for more.
If you haven’t read it yet, check out the first interview with Director David Smith. In this latest one I got to chat with Editor and friend, Agustin Rexach. I met him through the wonderful world of twitter as @ECedit and his generosity in sharing time and knowledge over the last year or so has been staggering, especially in the support he gave when I made the big move out to Colorado. He is the epitome of the act of paying it forward, and inspires me in that regard. His responses to my questions below are yet another example of how he goes above and beyond; there is so much gold in his perspective on the craft. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Agustin Rexach is a film and video editor straddling the line between the worlds of broadcast commercials and narrative features. Also, he is a bilingual creative editor, shaping both English and Spanish language projects. Here is his description, taken from his website, that does a hell of a better job than any wording I can develop.
I was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico way back in 1971. Since I was a young child, my mother instilled in me a deep love for film. She was always shooting footage with her Super 8 film camera. She had a great eye for composition. I was first exposed to the power of film editing after my older brother divorced his first wife. My mother was very uncomfortable with the whole situation.
One night she threaded all the Super 8 film rolls she had shot and systematically cut out all the footage of my brother’s ex-wife. I remember that night vividly because I was tasked with holding the mini splicer while my mother excised the unwanted pieces of film. I was blown away by the fact that one minute my brother’s ex wife was smiling happily on the screen and the next second she had vanished. I asked my Mom what we were doing. Without skipping a beat she gave me a one word answer: “Rewriting.”
My professional editing career began in 1995 when, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcasting and Film from Boston University, I joined the team at Lux Digital Group in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I spent two great years there. I got the opportunity to cut television commercials for some of the country’s leading ad agencies.
In 1997 I moved to Miami, Florida where I continued my editing career at BVI (now New Art Miami). I spent three years at BVI before deciding to become a freelance editor. It was during this time that I made inroads into the Florida independent film community. In 2000, I cut my first independent feature and ever since then, I have combined long format projects with television commercial work.
After eight years in Miami, I was offered a job at 1080 in San Antonio, Texas. I accepted the position of creative editor and worked with the company from 2004 to February, 2010.
Currently, Agustin is working as an in house editor at Davis Elen Advertising in Los Angeles, California while continuing to pursue feature length projects on a freelance basis.
After soaking up his interview, head over to his site Editorially Correct to check out the plethora of spots and feature examples posted there. With all that said, please enjoy my back and forth with Agustin Rexach.
GM3 – What qualities do you find in the clients you work with regularly? What makes you both click?
AR – A passion for communicating their ideas. I love passionate people because I am one myself. I gravitate to clients who are well rounded people. We spend a lot of time in the cutting room and it’s good to have things to talk about besides the nuts and bolts of a project. My clients and I talk about the news, politics, movies, books, art and (lately) kids. Being a parent has made me a better human being and editor, no question about it. In a way, it’s made me get over myself. I laugh a lot more. I know it sounds like a cliche, but the time I spend with my son allows me to be a kid again. I feel I’m more open to the wonders of small things.
GM3 – When working with a client for the first time how do you go about fostering a good working relationship with them, how do you approach that fresh interaction and make them feel safe with you?
AR – I love editing and my clients pick up on that. To me, editing is where it’s at. It is not a steppingstone to directing or other industry careers. I want to be an editor, period. It’s important to me that they feel that I’m not going to be phoning their project in. Also, especially if I’m working with a director, it’s important that they know that I’m not there to direct their project from the editor’s chair. Having spent some time on the production side I know all about the pressures they have and I know how difficult it is for them to acquire the footage that I will be cutting. I respect that immensely and I let them know in so many words. I think the most important thing to do on my first session with a client is listen. I listen to what they want to accomplish and if they have any doubts or problems with the material. I try to not come on too strong with my opinions at the beginning. I think it’s a good idea to get started with their initial input and let the material dictate if and when I need to make a suggestion. That approach makes the client feel at ease. As soon as they understand that you are there to HELP and not to IMPOSE your will, their confidence level increases and they feel like they can let their guard down. I also invite my clients to sit next to me. I somehow want to break through that “you sit on the couch, and I sit up front and if you want anything, speak up” barrier. A lot of new clients are intimidated by technology and let’s face it, high-end cutting rooms are, more often than not, designed to look like space ship cockpits. So in a lot of instances, the very room we work in can send that off putting message that a client should not get too close. I want them to get close because right away, it makes the client feel like an active participant in the process.
GM3 – How do you “sell” a cut? What are your methods for communicating your intent or purpose of an editorial decision?
AR – I offer multiple versions of a cut. I believe in involving the clients in the process. What I do is sit them down and take them through the multiple versions (usually 3 to 5 different cuts). I’ll have my favorite or my recommended cut, of course, and I’ll tell them that somewhere in there, they’ll see my recommended cut, but I won’t tell them which one. This is a great way to break the ice and open the conversation. I also start with the weakest cuts first and progress to the more refined ones. I believe this serves two purposes: the clients see that I put work into refining the cut, but also those first cuts can have some very interesting choices. My first cuts are very instinctual, I try not to over think things too much and that can produce some interesting results that can be brought back into the latter, more refined cuts. It can also produce absolute shit, but that’s the process.
GM3 – What should an editor know about the director/client and his personality that would help the working relationship?
AR – I think at the end of the day, everyone wants to be listened to and be taken into account. I think the thing to remember is that every client is usually beholden to another, bigger client. They are carrying all that pressure and responsibility into my cutting room and it’s up to me to create an environment where the client feels they have an ally. I love the service aspect of what I do. Whether it’s getting someone a cup of coffee or cutting their feature film, it’s all driven by my desire to please and make people happy. I think it takes a very distinct personality to be an editor. We are the bass players of the filmmaking process. Our position is not flashy or glamorous, but if we don’t do our job right, the piece will have no funk, swagger or attitude. If we do our job right, nobody notices, but if we screw it up, everyone will notice.
GM3 – How do you combat the “button-pusher” syndrome where a client is micromanaging every aspect of the edit and not incorporating you as a collaborator?
AR – This is a service industry. If a client wants to treat me as a button pusher, there’s very little I can do about it. I will do more damage to the relationship if I try to impose my will on them. At the end of the day, it’s their way of working and I am successfully serving them by assuming that role. Anything that keeps the session moving along is a positive. Usually what happens is that these type of clients will hit a wall sooner or later and get stuck. When that happens, I’m there to get them unstuck. That usually puts an end to the micromanaging aspect of things. But, again, this is a business of relationships and relationships develop over time. We are too much of a microwave society. We want everything now, but relationships need the benefit of time and repetition so that they can develop. Trust has to be earned.
GM3 – In managing a trouble client where the relationship has gone wrong, what types of things can you do to right the ship and bring a positive nature back to the relationship instead of just weathering the storm?
AR – Let the Wookie win. Always. If things get really bad I just try to keep my cool and get through the session. Deliver their product and listen to what they want and give it to them. I’ve also learned to prevent situations like this by not taking things personal, even if afterwards I need a week to vent and decompress. I’ve learned that this business has a lot of hidden agendas that sometimes I am not privy to. Sometimes clients are resistant to work with me for reasons of their own. That’s okay, you are not going to please everyone. I would rather walk away from a job that does not feel right. The sad part is when they use you as a scapegoat for their own agendas. One ad agency creative would go around the agency saying that I was not creative enough and did not contribute anything during a session. Turns out he had a big campaign coming up and wanted his sister to edit it. How can you compete with that? I only wish he had had the maturity and character to stand up to his producers and tell the truth. Why play with my reputation? But at the end of the day, you accumulate enough goodwill in the industry that comments like that are not as harmful, but it sure pissed me off at the time. If a client’s mind is made up from the beginning, let them have their way.
GM3 – How do separate your edit suite and sessions from all the other ones out here? How do you keep the clients coming back to you and your edit experience?
AR – It’s important to be technically proficient. You have to deliver an end result that’s not only creatively satisfying, but technically sound. The world’s most brilliant edit is useless if it cannot be successfully delivered to its final (and these days many) format(s). Having said that, I try to concentrate on the human experience of editing. The latest gadgets and software packages are useless if people can’t stand being around you. People come for the technology and technical savvy, but they stay for the human experience.
GM3 – How do you manage a session where you have multiple clients in the suite and the decision by committee syndrome is kicking in?
AR – I try not to add to the confusion. When you have situations like this it’s usually a battle of egos. I try not to add my own to the mix. In my experience, when things get heated like this, clients forget to even ask the editor what they think. If I see that we’ve reached an impasse, I will very gently suggest a compromise and show them. As quickly as you can, move the situation away from just talking about it to seeing the alternatives on the screen. This will get the clients into a proactive stance rather than a defensive one. Once again, the power of different versions comes in very handy. I try to send them away with more than one alternative and have them find a common ground. The cutting room should be a neutral ground for these types of situations. The only time I really put my foot down (and I tell them so) is when I see them making decisions that will damage their product from a technical standpoint. Case in point, with the transition to HD, a lot of clients don’t understand title safe, especially 4:3 Center Cut safe. I understand their frustration as it limits their design choices, but there’s nothing to be done about it. If my broadcast specs call for graphics to be center cut safe, that’s that. I remind them that their graphics will be cut off and that’s why I’m putting my foot down. In most cases they appreciate that you are looking out for them, even if you are making their lives more difficult. At the end of the day, if those graphics get cut off on broadcast, you will be getting that angry call, not the art director, so that’s a battle you cannot lose.
GM3 – When in a session where decisions are being split between director, producers, and agency creatives or studio execs, who are you looking to as the lead, how do you please each individually while pleasing the whole?
AR – In advertising I’ve found out through experience that creative is king. I usually take my cues from the creatives but with a healthy dose of the producer mixed in. By that I mean keep your agency producer informed of everything that’s going on. If there is something to be resolved, let them resolve it. I don’t think it’s an editor’s job to get in the way of how an Agency does business (and, yes, this applies even if you work as an in house editor). It is your job to execute and deliver for your clients, that’s it. Beyond that it’s like telling a stranger how to raise their kids. It’s just not a good idea. Again, advertising is fascinating that way: agencies bring these incredible filmmakers to shoot their content, but at the end of the day, every piece has an objective. More often than not, the director’s wishes do not gel with the needs of the ad agency or their client. Director’s cuts are usually more concerned with the filmmaking prowess of the piece (as it should be, since it was that filmmaking prowess that got them the job in the first place) rather than the advertising needs of the client. Again, I think that a healthy mix of both visions is in order. The director brings invaluable insight into how something should be cut, but at the same time when you combine it with the needs of your client it produces a more balanced piece. A lot of times it’s not as interesting from a filmmaking standpoint but it is successful as what it was intended to be: advertising.
Once again, versioning is key. I please the agency, but I always try to make time for directors. Even if it means staying late, I’ll try to give directors their due and find time for their cuts. I had been working on this campaign for a few days with the Agency when the Producer tells me that the director wants to drop by and work on his cuts. The thing was that the director could only make it at 7PM that night. I had the choice to say no and go home, but I opted to stay as I often do. The director came and we worked until 1AM. We had a great time, as he is a terrific person, but he also appreciated the time and effort I put in for his sake. Last year when my family and I relocated to Los Angeles, this person was, and still is, a huge part of helping me with that transition. He has always put in a good word for me and has been very supportive. Now we are gearing up for his first feature. None of this would have happened if I had opted to go home that night. Once again, this is a business of relationships.
My experience with indie features has been more unified as I usually work with directors who are also producers. The big advantage of features is you have the benefit of time. Since the post schedule is not as compressed as those on advertising, clients have more time to assimilate and get used to ideas. It’s not the same to digest a cut over a period of months than it is to digest it in a few days or even hours. So on features and docs, this process seems to be less violent.
GM3 – One of the things I really admire about you is the fact that you juggle short form advertising projects with long form narrative work. When you move between these different styles, are there any aspects of the way you work that you have to change in terms of the collaborate nature? From your perspective as a creative editor what are the biggest differences between the ad work and the narrative work?
AR – There really isn’t much difference. I try to work with people who understand collaboration so it’s not very different. A lot of times in long form work, the filmmaker feels a lot more pressure to lock the big picture. So, from the get go, they are very open to what I bring to the table. It’s worth noting that most of my long form work up to this point have been projects that have developed from relationships in my advertising work. So, a lot of the directors and producers I work with in long form already know me and what I’m about.
From a creative standpoint, I find that in long form work I feel less pressure to make a cut. The nature of spots demand you tell a story in a specific amount of time so you have make cuts in the service of time compression. In features and docs, you can let things happen because time is not so much a factor. I guess an interesting way to look at it is that features are about when not to cut, which has become my overall philosophy lately. Whether I’m cutting a feature or a commercial, I’m trying to get out of the way and let the great things just happen. God forbid I cut prematurely.