by Erik Luers
A not very wise man once reflected that the strongest examples of film editing are the sequences where you don’t notice it. Day-long seminars such as “Sight, Sound & Story,” which took place last Saturday at the Florence Gould Hall in Manhattan, seek to pull back the curtain on the constantly evolving digital tools and techniques in need of demystification. Structured around a series of topical, industry-specific interests, the panels I attended approached the craft (and the difficulties of perfecting it) from a myriad of vantage points, none the least being narrative structure, the identification of theme and post-production sound design. Speaking to a house compromised primarily of similarly minded film craftsman, the panelists dug out their own portfolios to provide concise case studies.
With the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals recently wrapped – and the World Cup currently captivating citizens around the globe – one panel, “Fast and Furious: Cutting Sports Television,” felt particularly relevant. Compiled of four editors who have worked on scripted features, athlete profiles and more, the overarching message proved to be that stories with inspiration and uplift (with a dash of unforeseen conflict) is key to reaching your audience. Although a series of clips were shown from various sports including boxing, snowboarding and swimming, the one that stood out the most was the opening video package for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
A riveting hype package designed to give people a reason to care and a reason to watch, the expensively produced footage personalized the upcoming experience by highlighting athletes, participating countries and the host city. It’s also aided along by some celebrity flair. “We’re usually adding shots up until the very end,” noted Phil Parrish, senior producer/editor for NBC Olympics, “but we try to have a celebrity voiceover that could bring a little extra intrigue. This time around we had a short list of voiceover people that we were interested in. Peter Dinklage turned out to be the narrator for this particular tease. From Sochi, we had an ISDN connection with a Pro Tools session here in New York, so they had our picture and we had their sound. We could actually synchronize his scratch track to our rough cut.”
Also of interest was a panel gathering two of Martin Scorsese’s long-time sound editors, Eugene Gearty (The Aviator, Hugo) and Sam Miille (Shutter Island, The Departed), to explain how they developed a final mix for last year’s The Wolf of Wall Street. When asked if they had to put together something extra fast due to the film’s reported rush to get edited down to three hours, Gearty answered honestly. “For what would be the normal process for when you’re prepping the final mix, we thought the picture edit would have been further along,” Gearty explained. “This was a complicated film that was wrought with difficulties, but we were so impressed by how smoothly it went. It was a four-hour film four weeks from the end [of post production]. We were constantly updating final mixes with new versions.”
The evening concluded with a career tribute to Michael Kahn, one of the most prolific and respected film editors of the past 40 years. After getting his start working in the office of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s production company Desilu, Kahn was advised that if he wanted to stay afloat in Hollywood, he’d have to obtain a union card (“so I got into the editor’s union, and I didn’t even know what editing was!”). After learning the editing trade, Kahn began a successful six-year stint on well over a hundred episodes of Hogan’s Heroes, working with a plethora of directors and learning how to collaborate with a multitude of personalities.
From there, Steven Spielberg got in touch to discuss working on an upcoming project titled Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “In my interview, Spielberg asked me two questions,” Kahn recalled. “‘Are you a good editor and do you always wear jeans?’” A working relationship that has spanned over thirty-five years, Kahn and Spielberg’s friendship was the primary focus of the evening, featuring clips from some of their most notable efforts: Close Encounters, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of that particular film, Kahn admitted that he had cheated a bit in the famous opening sequence in which Indiana Jones attempts to escape a booby-trapped lair before a wall descends and traps him inside forever. “The most difficult part for me,” Kahn noted, “was that wall coming down. Every time it came down, in the next cut, it was higher! You have to do things like that to gain some suspense for Indiana Jones. If you let the door close, he’s screwed!” Spielberg reassured Kahn that they would get away with the cheat.
Interspersed with these sessions of playful scene analysis were Kahn’s casually helpful musings and rules about the editing process. Kahn discussed his love for “disorientation,” i.e. opening a scene with a close shot (placing the audience in an indistinguishable location) before revealing the master shot and the location’s identity. Other helpful tips included the rule of threes (if a character is speaking, don’t cut to just one person’s reaction, cut to three) and a reinterpretation of coitus interruptus, which Kahn fights against by allowing a great performance to breathe, unbroken, with minimal cuts. Daniel Day-Lewis’ work in Lincoln, which Kahn called the greatest performance he had ever seen, was cited as one such example, leading into a seven-minute clip from the film featuring a table discussion centered around the 13th Amendment.
Although the discussion, which started a little late, had to be cut short — there were perhaps a bit too much video product placement and in-person demonstrations presented before each panel — Kahn’s honest answers sent the standing-ovation-providing crowd home happy. Kahn, who has admittedly lost a little steam since switching from the Moviola to the Avid (“when I was on the Moviola, I’d stand up and sit down, stand up and sit down. I was a real good-looking, thin guy, a handsome devil!”), had enough energy to joke around and reflect on a still unfinished career. In many ways, Kahn’s light, honest and welcoming personality summed up “Sight, Sound & Story”: by the end of the evening, the audience had certainly taken away a lot from some of the best in the business, and craved more.