I used to feel sorry for myself for missing the boat in life. I always felt I was living in the wrong generation, growing up at the wrong time, because great things would pass me by and I’d ask, “Where was I?” Where was I when Kerouac went on the road or when French auteur, Robert Bresson, directed the lead star, a Nietzsche-esque donkey, in Au Hazard Balthazar? All this was before beats became hipsters and before art-house turned indie.
But now, I have a different perspective. Living out of sync can be a good thing. To be displaced or not having thrived on greener pastures evoke a call to action, to become an adventurer, forced to start afresh and discover new ground.
I was fortunate to learn filmmaking at a time when the old would bridge the new, and the new would become innovative, while the old diminished into something archaic. And when you find yourself at the splice of life, where two worlds meet—suddenly, you’re viewed as either ancient and a hundred years old or considered freaky because you conquered time and still look eighteen.
Film editing underwent a drastic transition in the 1990s, when non-linear editing emerged. Without ascribing to be a Luddite, it was like going from the Dinosaur age, suddenly immersed in the Golden Age of industrialization. The big leap in film technology from manual to digital would eventually wipe out armies of film labs and equipment manufacturers going 100 years-plus strong.
For the longest time, we went from editing on gigantic 400-pound monster pieces of metal (that required three strong dudes, usually Russians, to lift) and holding physical film against the light to read time code—to carrying an Airbook that weighs less than a book and editing in an airplane. Unbelievable.
My favorite word in filmmaking is “splice.”
Splice holds special meaning for me. Technically speaking, a splice is a cut in the film where two pieces join. We used splicers. A splicer is yet another heavy block of metal! It has a razor on it, or “guillotine”, you slam down on the film to cut it into two pieces. Sounds violent, huh? If non-linear editing is also called “non-destructive” editing, does that mean the enthusiastic beheading process in traditional film editing was actually, seriously “destructive?” LOL.
My editing mentor, Iris, taught us the fine art and craftsmanship of cutting film on a splicer and training us to think about the artistic and practical theories behind various types of cuts. The first part of putting a film together requires using paper tape, so you don’t commit to the actual cut. The committed cut is then secured by transparent sprocket tape.
You start by loosely putting together an “assembly”—a rugged placement of the images’ sequential order. Because the physical film had a quality of permanence, it was hard to rule out the assembly phase. If you cut something, you would spend a lot of time and energy finding those pieces to put together again when you change your mind. So, you had to decide before cutting that this is really what you want. Each splice required contemplation…as if you’re about to get engaged to an image. This lingering process of working up to the wedding date when your film is finally “married” is probably what lends film editing an exquisite desire to earn a movie’s love.
But think of how hard the brain has to work. Imagination is supercharged by the physical restrictions of knowing that what’s in your hands can be destroyed. The brain is forced to draw up a map or vision of the final picture. Unless you want to spend hours going through reels to find an image, you can’t allow yourself to cut tightly until the edits become refined (sort of like writing and the rewrite process; the art is in the rewrites).
Yet, the mad-scientist fueled obsession, the patience to see far ahead, to envision, wait, and have the endurance to work toward a perfect picture make for strong editors, who come from the discipline of traditional editing. The painstaking process of keeping a physical and organized record of all your film pieces is tough discipline. It’s akin to being an athlete, who trains thousands of hours to account for the agility, endurance, grace, and all the qualities that account for greatness.
With artistic processes, you don’t train to enter the Olympics, but you train for self-mastery. The “agility” you gain equates to making decisive edits, without overthinking, like how a commander guides his troops on exact procedures in the heat of chaos. And the editing process is chaotic. A master editor can look at a mass of content and bring artistic order. In this regard, a traditional editor is like a sculptor, who can see the fully finished art piece out of a slab of shapeless clay.
I first learned how to edit in high school, when film classes were relatively unknown. I was the only girl in a class of four students in a TV/Film broadcast career placement program. When I first edited 16mm, I was not taught how to do so artistically, only mechanically. But once I sat down with the splicer, something else took over. I became possessed by a profound experience of working with lit-up images with my hands. I was playing and cutting poetry with light. I spent timeless hours entranced, lost and absorbed in the editing process.
So, by the time I entered college, I had taught myself how to edit fluidly. One thing I did differently in my freshman year of film school was that I didn’t do assemblies. I also didn’t do roughs. Whenever my teacher, Iris, gave us a project, the vision in my head was so clear and so complete that I went straight into a fine cut with paper tape. Her first urge was to slap my wrist and tell me I couldn’t edit this way and that it’s poor discipline.
One argument I made was that I could “see through the tape.” The moving image and paper tape covered from 3 to 5 frames on each side of the film and this didn’t bother me. I could “see” through the paper because my mind or mental eye could make up for the hidden frames. Once she saw the footage, she was convinced that I knew what I was doing.
So Iris made an exception. She told the rest of the kids they weren’t allowed to do that, but I could. LOL. Although I knew she was a little unfair to other students, I bathed in a deep sense of accomplishment of being allowed to edit in my own style.
What I didn’t know, until years later, was that Iris was using me as an example in every freshman class in every year until the Avid (or digital editing) took over. She told them that paper tape story over and over, as if I were some kind of myth or genius. And, of course, everyone likes to be called that. So, it warmed my heart and made me feel special. This was priceless.
My philosophy about editing during those film school days was intense. I spent years, fascinated with the concept of a “film splice.” The reason the splice—the space or cut—between two images cease to amaze is because I could see where two points join. How would I explain that amazement?
It’s like cooking something, and a sudden change takes place, where the raw food becomes cooked. Normally, we don’t see this transition. We just suddenly realize, oh, the food is getting browner, and now, it’s done.
But at what point do you see it getting brown? Or take the example of when you’re growing up. As a child, you can barely reach the doorknob. The next year, your head is up against it. The change is so gradual you don’t see the actual “point” or the process where the change happened.
The transition point or splice is what I saw while editing, and I wanted to see more and more of it. To see a transition point is witnessing magic.
Magic is when one thing transforms into another. And it is this constant magic I was experiencing when I edited film. I could cut for hours, often over one or two days, without sleep. It wasn’t because I was a workaholic, but because I was dwelling inside the magic.
Time-lapse videos cannot capture magic. Seeing things transform mechanically is a process void of life. Something is still missing because, down to the minutest level, no one can truly see or capture the transition point. It is a perception that defies the senses.
The tedious effort of diving into the editing bin (which is about 3 feet deep) to search the bottom for a tiny piece of film that can make or break a superfine cut is worth it. The laborious process of reconstituting reels of outtakes to easily locate logged footage is daunting. Yet, all this is driven by the desire to experience magic, to see how that tiny strip that’s worth one or two seconds, can transform an entire image. Driven by OCD-instincts, die-hard film editors achieve what scientists can’t, which is alchemy.
If I were to describe what film editing means to me, it is defined as a process of “staring into magic,” seeing the actual splice where transformation takes place. If this isn’t turning lead into gold, I don’t know what is.