The Good Alchemist

I hole myself up about two days a week and shut out the world. I work for 20 hours, in darkness—like a good alchemist. The days blend, I don’t know what time it is, and I don’t care. I’m just with the film. I don’t sleep, I powernap—resting only by necessity. I work until I’m delirious, exhausted, pass out and then find my way back to the table.

I’m a natural born editor.

Thank God I love editing because it’s arduous detailed work. Like writing, each draft after the rough is like writing the book all over again—line by line, paragraph by paragraph. Detailed, analytical and creative—film editing works both left and right parts of the brain. Like cooking, editing has its “mise en place.” No meal can be prepared properly without it. If your foundation isn’t laid down right, your editing process will suffer. By being organized, you maximize your creative flow—like a painter who never wonders where he puts his mixed colors or favorite brushes. He masters his environment.

I am convinced that every editor has spent past lives as alchemists: mad scientists sitting in the dark for hours, watching over their experiments; watching “lead turn into gold.” And what makes it all worthwhile is that you get to witness the “invisible transactions” of transformation take place. When you compare this invisible transaction to time-elapsed video or birth occur: you may see for example, the sun setting and rising—yet you only see “successions” of it; the results. The thing that remains invisible is the actual “change.” This invisible change is the secret of life we call the “splice.” Only the holy mystics can see such things—so as an editor, you get to experience something unusual. And I live for that.

When I was 17 years old, I touched film for the first time. My first love with film began when it I did my first cut on 16mm. I lost track of time and space and fell into a state of bliss. It was as if everything around me disappeared. Even though others were around me, I felt totally solitary. I enjoyed the repetitive task of splicing film by hand, lining up the sprockets and joining cuts with perforated tape. I called my cutting block my “butcher block” and I learned how to chop very quickly.

I did fine cuts without doing assemblies or rough cuts. Most times, I go straight into the fine cut. Although I may call it a rough, it’s really a fine cut. From there, it’s just a process of tweaking.

I was doing fine cuts with paper (instead of clear) tape and this astonished my editing teacher in college—because no one did that. She used to slap your wrist for doing so, because it’s unorthodox. But she let me do it because I could see the invisible transaction between the cuts and keep the flow of the images—I could see through the paper tape in my mind. For years she told this story to all her editing students and I’m sure it only made them feel like shit. But this was when I knew I was a good editor.

Today, everyone can edit. It’s easy and it’s fun. But traditional editing is actually an art form, a craft—just like taking art classes to learn form, color, contrast, symmetry and composition. One of the exercises we had to do was to bring in a sample clip of a movie of an edit we liked and to critique it. I brought in a sample from an indie French film and showed the class a scene of a battle on a rooftop between two men wearing black coats. My teacher analyzed it, slow mo’ed it back so we could all see the actual “cut.” She asked me why I liked it. I told her I loved how the camera was filled in black by the man’s coat and the next thing you knew, when he moved out of the way—we were somewhere else. She had a name for it. It was an actual technique—which I’ve forgotten. But I felt enlightened. I loved the idea of using the natural blocking of light as an edit.

One time, I was on a 20-hours long flight and I saw a mainstream movie that had one of the most beautiful edits. I had to stop the movie and roll it back. I kept rolling it back and forth until I could see the “invisible transaction.” And there it was. I saw the magic the editor was going through. It amazed me.

In film school, we used to hole ourselves up in the production rooms. Each table was occupied with a monster-size Steenbeck or Moviola and there was a Jewish guy named Neil from a company named M.P.E. (Motion Picture Enterprises) who would make a trip up once a month from NYC to Westchester. He’d sell us grease china markers, paper and splice tape, split reels, cores and so on. He always wore his tie really tight and looked like he was choking. Neil serviced the maintenance on the machines. He had a lucrative business not knowing that in within a few years, digital editing software and computers would wipe him out.

I was happy to be there to witness this incredible shift from analog film technology to digital. It was indeed an interesting time; to be so young yet to see the world change so drastically—that kids just a few years after me—would never get to film or edit with celluloid again.

I went to a school that was more of an experimental film and art school than a commercial trade school. It had its drawbacks but what I liked about it was that it was at the inception of everything, including indie filmmaking. There were a good number of “godfathers” that came out that school. Some of today’s big Hollywood actors also got their start in the acting department. I had a narrative foundation while developing artistic style. It was a good and ideal blend. We never made group projects. We only made films that we wrote, directed and envisioned; and to me, this was only right.

I rode a motorcycle while I was in film school, which made editing rough (no pun intended). I could never carry anything on my bike. Everything was in my locker at school. Hal Hartley (director) was one of my teachers. He stopped by my locker to talk to me after I had spray painted the five feet locker door lime neon green. It was very bright.

The film lockers were in the same building as the music department in the basement. I pulled out about three bottles of spray paint and was prepared to bomb the entire locker neon green. There was music event going on and a little girl came out and asked me what I was doing. I looked at her like, “get lost.” She ran back inside a music classroom and pretended she was choking from the paint. The vindictive little bitch came back out with a mean lady, a teacher that started to bitch me out for spraying toxic stuff in the building and accused me of making children sick. Granted, I had the hallway exit doors propped open to air it out. I told her to fuck off and a horrified look drew a curtain over her face. She was speechless and knew she could go nowhere with me. She dragged that little bitch away with her. I hate brats.

My locker was my second home. It was three feet deep and contained all my film equipment, cake boxes of film reels and the editing bin. Everyday, I had to drag all this shit into the editing room. I threw on some house music on a beat box and edited while having a dance party in the room. People were surprisingly tolerant of me. Rarely, did anyone complain about the music. I was a bad influence on my best friend, Jack. He and I were the only ones that blasted house music all the time while we edited. Being gay, he also played some opera.

There were rumors about the editing floors. Some say that one room had a ghost in it. Another person said a girl was raped in number #5. My favorite room was #6 because it had the only machine that had all the moving parts in working order with no broken bulbs. Everything that can live on the paper-thin carpet was festering in it. The carpet was never cleaned, neither were the rooms. So we imagined there being sweat, dirt and floor being cum-stained. Yet we still slept on it—I did, for many days and nights.

Time elapsed. It didn’t exist. Someone would walk by my room and say “hi” at 3pm and at 8 am the next day (when class was about to start) they would walk by and see me still sitting there—editing.

We drank coffee, lots of it. Our favorite was Chock full o’Nuts, not because it tasted good, but because it was cheap.

Coffee, darkness, house music and editing, those were my days and nights.

These are my some of my editing war stories.

One day I was bored. I watched a gang of my friends hang out in the frigid New York cold in the front of the film building. They were at a van with Frank Barrera, whom I’ve always liked as a friend and DP. They were attempting to move a 6-plate Steenbeck (editing machine) to a friends’ house in Tarrytown, NY and asked if I wanted to come. I really didn’t. Besides, I wasn’t capable of help them lift it.

They were trying to save money by not paying Neil.

Neil (from MPE) had really big Russian guys—immigrants do all the deliveries. They were rugged and strong. Carrying a Steenbeck is one of the most painful events you can witness. It’s like lifting a grand piano—maybe even worse. You’d hear grunting, panting, deep pauses of recovery and see them turn red and blanketed with sweat. The thing was so heavy that Neil would charge by the “steps” or staircase. I think it was $40 a flight. He was making good money because most NYC apartments are walk-ups!

So I went with them to watch this event. I should have brought my video camera. I was constantly documenting my life, but this time, I didn’t bother—and I should have.

We drove across Westchester County in the winter along the icy road. I’m telling you, that movie, THE ICE STORM captures the mood of upstate, NY and rural East Coast so perfectly…very dismal and rural and this was the general feeling of it. When we got to the house, I thought it was a joke:

Here we were, standing on a skinny icy sidewalk with frozen snow on the lawn looking up at a steep hill with narrow stone steps winding up to a little house at the top. It thought we were inside a cartoon. The whole house looked like a cartoon.

I was like thinking, “You’re kidding me.” Now, either Neil refused to deliver to this house, or the filmmaker, Aaron was the biggest asshole on earth. In any case, he managed to convince all his pals at school to help deliver the flatbed (editing table).

I watched four or five guys haul the table up the tiny ice-packed steps and into the house. Once they got inside, they had to take it up two flights of stairs. One problem: it was one of those very narrow winding staircases. That meant they had to flip the flatbed in all kinds of weird directions to get around the corner. And as they did so, they got stuck. Now, they were all running out of steam and paused. It was either, drop the whole damn thing, take it back down or muster a second wind to haul it over the rail to the second flight. I saw their faces heat up with gritted teeth. They couldn’t put the thing down or let go of their grip.

The whole thing was so ludicrous that I broke out in laughter. I laughed so hard. And I guess I wasn’t being very helpful.

I will never forget that night. And I cherish this story because it’s a classic experience that you can never have again in this lifetime; to know what editing was like—and how hard it was just to physically get access to the equipment—before the digital era.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the art of editing itself. I started making films at a perfect time where I got the best of both worlds. The discipline of traditional editing is a craft that you can’t fake. You simply can’t roll back the clock and imitate that world. I saw the analog world go up in flames, the Armageddon of film laboratories and everything analog, the day Neil’s three story warehouse factory ended up housing dinosaurs that nobody would ever touch again.

Every time Neil came to our school with his split reels and splicing tape, it was like the ice cream truck rolling up the block.

And us kids would flock to him for all the film goodies. I loved to haggle with him because he was so anal and such a shrewd. It was always a victory getting a small price break from him.

My fondest moments of visiting M.P.E. were the freight elevator rides. I should have documented that elevator man: he had transformed the chamber into an oasis and studio apartment. He had the roomy elevator plastered wall-to-wall and edge-to-edge with paraphernalia, a stereo system rigged inside, a comfortable chair that he sat on and he had stories. It was inimitable, so authentic and eccentric and slice of life—that you couldn’t replicate it even if you tried.

We Shall,

Ji Strangeway, We Shall

Ji Strangeway is a filmmaker, writer, and poet specializing in female-centric LGBTQ. She is also a fierce blogger aiming for a new level of indigoness and bad assery. Find out more: | Follow FB: jistrangeway.official  #jistrangeway

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Ji Strangeway

Ji Strangeway

Executant of the Ineffable

The Three Gates of Speech stipulates that you ask these questions before putting your foot in your mouth: Is it True? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind? Since this doesn't fit the purpose for every occassion, the criteria for my path is: Is it True? Is it Necessary? Is it Indigo?

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