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? 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. 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 the work relationships that keep clients coming back for more.
Here is how Eric describes his road to the edit chair.
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.
GM3- what qualities do you find in the clients you work with regularly? what makes you both click?
EB- Having similar sensibilities but with a unique voice. Generally speaking we see eye-to-eye on things both in, and out of, the edit suite. That’s not to say we don’t argue about a scene. Overall there is a large amount of trust.
GM3- when working with a new client how do you go about fostering a good working relationship with them?
EB- I ask a lot of questions to get inside their head and understand their project, who they are as creatives and what goal they are aiming for. I will ask the same questions different ways to assess their consistency. I keep going until the answers don’t change.
A new client looks for confidence in their post-production team. They want me to “just handle it,” plan ahead, avoid surprises.
From a creative perspective I choose my battles but if I don’t agree with something, I explain my position. Often I will try their suggestion and contrast it with my own.
GM3- how do you “sell” a cut? what are your methods for communicating your intent or purpose of an editorial decision?
It comes down to creative or technical. Technical is usually a no-brainer: soft focus, poor framing, too shaky. On the creative side it’s about the emotion we are trying to evoke in the audience. Does the cut achieve it?
There is that in-between category…the craft of editing. You know, those “best practices” like not crossing the line, cutting on action, pre-lapping dialogue, etc.
When it comes to “selling your cut” I think the circumstances dictate the action taken. A director who understands the editorial process shouldn’t be asking for “another two frames off the tail.” There is a time and place for that but they should be focused on the characters and the story. Are we hitting the right beats? Is that the right performance? How do we feel about our character?
I defend cuts as needed and with an explanation. It doesn’t hurt to have alternate versions and show them in a way which promotes your desired cut. Although this is a collaborative process, it’s the director’s film and they have final say.
GM3- what should an editor know about the director/client and his personality that would help the working relationship?
EB- The more time you can spend outside of the edit suite, the better. Have lunch and talk about movies, documentaries, your favorite restaurants, kids, the latest Apple product, whatever. If you’re wondering about things like micro-managing, tantrums, etc., you can ask around and find other editors more than happy to share stories.
I feel it’s my job to be accommodating because you can’t get along perfectly with everyone. Accommodating doesn’t mean push-over. It’s important to be assertive but respect that, ultimately, this is the director/producer’s project. Once it’s over the choice is mine to work with them again.
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?
In dealing with the “button pusher” syndrome the best solution is having a conversation about it. Some directors are perfectionists and can’t help themselves. Others just don’t know how to communicate their thoughts. Those who are abusive…just walk away.
The project may also determine how to handle this. If you’re editing an indie film for ultra-low pay, it’s probably not worth it. But cutting a high-profile film which may further your career…it may be worth putting up with.
It’s important to have a goal and not let little things like this get in the way.
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 weather the storm?
EB- It’s not just the client but everyone on your team. It’s important to be proactive and avoid disasters. If I have a question or concern I put it out there for discussion. If I’m unsure how a colleague feels, I’ll ask. Not everyone will be honest in their response but reaching out is what matters most.
Some people suggest “just walk away” but it depends on the situation. I ask myself “have I honestly done everything in my power to resolve this?” Fortunately I haven’t had to do this.
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?
EB- When it comes to differentiation it’s easy to think about a particular style of cutting. That’s only a piece of it. You differentiate by being easy to work with. Check your ego. Understand people’s needs and address them. Keep cool under pressure. Solve problems. Plan ahead. Get the job done without complaint or gossip. Be nice. Have fun.
You may get hired for your trendy cutting style but you’ll get re-hired because you are agreeable and play well with others.
GM3- How do you manage a session where you have multiple clients in the suite and the decision by committee syndrome is kicking in?
EB- I consider these to be brainstorming sessions. Something isn’t working so let’s get other viewpoints. What stands out are good ideas or something we haven’t tried yet…not “nudge this 4 frames that way” or some other mechanical suggestion.
It’s important to defer to your next-in-charge…the director. Let her slug it out with other people in the room. My job is to maintain sanity and control but not necessarily lead the group. It’s important to remember whose project this is and who is ultimately responsible for it.