By Betsy A. McLane, Ph.D.
Teaching and editing go hand in hand. There is great tradition in Hollywood editing; most editors working today have spent plenty of hours, some painful, some rewarding, and training newcomers on the job. And today’s editors, whether picture or sound, learned their skills through hands-on lessons from their predecessors. Mastering the ropes in this area of the entertainment industry relies on long-term apprenticeships and the generosity of people who share a love for the job.
It may still be necessary to spend years logging and observing to become a great editor, but there is no doubt that the mechanics of digital editing equipment are easily accessible to more people than ever before. With the wide availability of all kinds of filmmaking equipment, especially digital editing, there is demand for training in how to use it. Increasingly colleges and universities are taking on the role of educating young people in the entire range of media-making skills, including editing. The oldest and most noted film schools in New York and Los Angeles have long had access to top editors who teach classes, offer workshops and advise students and other faculty. In hundreds of other film, television and communications programs, access to guild level professionals is limited. Who then, is teaching editing, and who is training the teachers of editing?
Part of the answer is found each year at the conference of the University Film and Video Association (UFVA), the academic organization for people who teach production as well as critical studies in North American colleges and universities. Some of its members are from the “big name” film schools, but many teach in one or two person programs within communications or arts departments, or are located in places far from any professional production center. This year UFVA met at Columbia College in Chicago, which is a relatively new powerhouse, with an enrollment of about 2000 students in media arts. Over 100 different schools were represented during the four-day gathering.
The opening night program, sponsored by Avid Technology was “Perspectives on Film and Television Editing” with a presentation by multi-award winning editor Tina Hirsch, a past president of the American Cinema Editors. Hirsch has edited feature films such as GREMLINS and DANTE’S PEAK as well as television dramas including THE WEST WING. She recently received an EMMY nomination for BACK WHEN WE WERE GROWNUPS. Hirsch is also on the faculty of the University of Southern California School of Cinema Television. She was introduced by Alan Jacobs, Avid’s Business Development Manager for Education. Jacobs made a point of stating that Avid’s commitment to education was about, “Building a relationship that goes beyond buying technology.”
Hirsch’s presentation is what she uses for her first class of each semester at USC: screening and discussing two versions of a pilot for a 1997 HBO series. The first version was rejected by HBO and Hirsch was brought in by the director to recut, using existing footage. Apparently the director, simply told Hirsch to make it better and then left her alone to do just that. The purpose of the exercise is to show how much can be done to improve a piece without reshooting anything. A Q&A session followed in which Hirsch explained that with a character conflict-based format such as this, she thought of the editing as a “dueling 1/2 hour tennis match.” She also added numerous sound effects to make humorous points and changed the characters’ development to be more sympathetic to the audience.
The relationship between sound and image is paramount to Hirsch, although she believes that sometimes silence is the best sound effect possible. She applies this even to music, citing examples of building tension in DANTE’S PEAK by dropping out music as the volcano builds, rather than trying to raise tension with scary music. Hirsch offered the audience a glimpse of what their students might face in a professional situation. They can be technically proficient on equipment, but she maintains, “Editing is in the gut.”
Avid, a major supporter of UFVA also put on three additional panels. “High Definition Workflow and Collaboration,” moderated by Pete Ballard, Vice President and COO of LAB 601, an Atlanta-based post-production facility, was a panel of independent filmmakers examining the HD process. It exposed the real-world problems of working cost effectively while exploring the dos and don’ts of image/sound capture, postproduction and delivery of HD product. “Integrating Art and Theory with the Practice of Nonlinear Editing” dealt primarily with the nuts and bolts of teaching nonlinear editing. “Teaching Collaboration” was perhaps the most adventuresome of the presentations. It looked at how shared storage solutions and nonlinear editing can encourage collaborative work and media sharing in ways not possible on stand-alone systems.
In another presentation Columbia College’s facilities were showcased in a most real-world situation. In this workshop “Exploring Innovative Postproduction Techniques,” a Super 16 student production was followed from image capture to 35 mm release print using a 2K HD transfer to provide editing ease. With this type of equipment and professional support, students will enter the workplace with a great deal of technical experience. Clearly professors are doing their best to offer students practical as well as theoretical backgrounds. Such practices may not make apprenticeships in editing any shorter, but they could be productive rather than painful for everyone involved.