New Tricks Are Hard


As many of you who come here even occasionally know by now, part of what’s going on in my ongoing midlife crisis is that I’ve been trying to make some sort of transition career wise. Just to recap the long story for those of you who need it: went to grad school in film to become a writer/director, started doing sound to pay the bills, been doing it for going on 25 years now while continuing to try and write stuff and make films and…er, that’s it, not such a long story after all I guess. Since the actual filmmaking and writing isn’t paying my bills, I’ve been trying to figure out what else I can do other than sound to earn a living.

Now, before those of you with whom I work stop calling me, IT’S NOT HAPPENING YET, I AM NOT OUT OF THE BUSINESS. Because there’s this thing that happens in production when you even dip your toe into something other than your regular production day job. One person hears that you’re teaching a class, or that you’re making a documentary, and all of a sudden everybody’s saying, “I hear she’s out of the business.” It isn’t necessarily done out of malice, although there are always people who are super competitive and will take any available opportunity to find a way to knock you out of contention for whatever jobs they might also want, especially if you work in commercials like I do, which is a pretty small pool. That type of sniping happens a lot more among sound mixers, who spread rumors like a bunch of nearly-all-male fishwives when they think it’s to their advantage. I think the fast pace of rumor-spreading among people who work in production really has more to do with the fact that we have so much downtime on every job, and not always that much to talk about other than work, especially when you’re literally at work all the time and therefore have no outside life to speak of. You’ve gotta talk about something sometimes and the latest scuttlebutt that you’ve heard but not necessarily verified about your co-workers is going to be the best something to keep your colleagues interested — and everyone wants to feel interesting.

Now that I’ve gotten the “I’M NOT OUT OF THE BUSINESS” disclaimer out of the way, what I will say is that, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a couple of jobs as a video editor. They’re not my first, but I wasn’t really making an effort before to try that out as a possible new day job, for a few reasons which now seem to be diminishing in importance. One, I also like teaching, so I’ve been pursuing that. Getting a full-time faculty job, however, at a time when most colleges just want to chew up adjuncts and and spit them out with no health insurance is getting really frustrating (for public schools that are being starved by their states who are in turn being starved by the federal government, it’s economic necessity, but for many other universities it’s really not, it’s just greed, and part of the whole growing trend in this country toward two completely divided Americas, rich and poor…but whatevs). Two, I was worried for some time that the bulk of the editing work out there was reality TV, and you all know how I feel about that. It does seem now, though, that with so many entities getting some sort of presence on the web and wanting video for their sites, there’s a lot more content being created out there that doesn’t make me want to vomit, so hooray for that. Three, I’ve always had reservations about spending all my time alone in a little room with a computer. And yet I’m finding that that prospect has actually gotten more appealing to me as I’ve aged into introversion and discovered how pleasant the company of machines who don’t expect you to make conversation can be. Not to mention that I just can’t spend all day on my feet any more, holding a pole with a mic on it over my head for long periods of time or working knees/back to move heavy cases and plug and unplug cables the way I have to when I work on set. Every year, a new part of my body cries out in pain and says “Are we really still doing this?” Plus, for me, editing is more intellectually stimulating than location sound. I enjoy the problem-solving and trouble-shooting of location work, particularly when I can anticipate and shoot the problems before they really become trouble, which is generally how you have to do it in our department, and which naturally implies that the problems aren’t intractable, like certain DPs’ lighting, or the now-nearly-ubiquitous wide and tight framing when you have 2+ cameras. Problem-solving with a problem that can’t be solved is just probleming, which is basically gnashing your teeth and muttering to yourself that everyone on set can just go fuck themselves. You can’t possibly overestimate how much time as a location sound person is spent doing exactly that. I also still find it interesting to read the script pages when I arrive on set and picture how they’ll translate, as well as watching actors and directors work — and not just the good ones, because it’s always interesting to see someone make the wrong choice and consider what a better one might have been. I still do learn new things that way, but after so many years, there’s not that much I haven’t seen in terms of technique, and I’ve probably stored about as much as I can for future use considering that many of the futures in which I’d use such knowledge may well never happen.

The thing that’s tough about taking on editing as a new occupation, however, is that, while I’ve edited a number of projects, I certainly haven’t done it in the mass quantities in which I’ve done sound work. As an editor, there’s quite a bit I still haven’t seen — in terms of technique, individual work styles, and what directors want and expect. One way to learn that would be to apprentice in a lower-level position. Coming up in a two- or three-person sound department, I got to see a lot of other people mix and boom, which was incredibly helpful. I never would have started wearing gloves to get more reach and range if I hadn’t worked with a couple of boom ops who I watched do that and discussed with them why they did. I couldn’t have acquired the plethora of wiring techniques that I now know if I hadn’t been able to watch so many mixers try so many combinations of moleskin and snot tape and Topstick and Transpore and HushLavs and all of the other bizarre shit people have developed over the years to make lavs sound good on other people. In the same way, there are tips and tricks that experienced editors have that I’ve only heard about or caught glimpses of, or tried to understand in online tutorials, which may be the godsend of modern life, but can’t reveal everything. Working as an assistant editor used to be the traditional point of entry to the editing ladder, but now that digital editing makes it so easy and fast to organize a project (no more searching for teeny tiny bits of celluloid that fell under your Steenbeck), and editing programs are pretty cheap, most anyone can teach themselves to edit and jump right into being the sole editor on their first or second bupkis-paying project. The fleet of lowly assistant editors who work the overnight shift digitizing, importing, synching and conforming just to catch glimpses of the master in action now mainly survives in L.A., where the bulk of narrative studio work, including most TV and film editing, is done. And that’s a terrible job, even when you’re 25.

One key thing I realized immediately that I didn’t know how to do was judge how long an edit is going to take. Most of my cutting hasn’t been on a deadline, or it’s been on a deadline which was given to me and I simply had to make, so I never needed to answer the question, “How long do you think you’ll need to complete this?” As a result, when I was asked that on my first editing job of the past few weeks, then had to decide if I could do it in 2/3 that time since that was all they had budgeted for, I said, “Suurremmmaybe?” And when I realized that even my first estimate was optimistic, I had to suck it up and eat those extra days on the budget I’d agreed to — which was at a low rate in addition to having too few hours, because that’s what you have to do when you’re starting out. The last job I had to work for the hourly rate I ended up with was probably one of those independent films that male directors somehow got funded in the 90s to play out all of their fantasy sexual conquests (I’m looking at you, Eric Schaeffer, but not just you, unfortunately). Something I also didn’t really know how to do before? Edit while someone else is watching. Pretty much all of the editing work I’ve done has entailed having a discussion with the director/producer, then going home and creating cuts on my own, getting feedback on those cuts from the powers that be, and then going back and making changes based on that, also on my own. On my second editing job these past couple of weeks, I had to sit with the director and work together nearly every day, which meant she was kind of just watching the gears in my head turn — a process that nobody should have to witness, ever. And it was bad enough having to try and come up with clever ideas about how to move the story along or improve the flow while she waited, since there’s nothing that makes you feel more stupid than having to be smart under duress. It was also trying to remember “Oh fuck, now how do I do that again?” fairly often, because all the nitpicky mechanical shit of how to do things quickly in an editing program is not yet ingrained, along with the occasional, “Oh fuck, what did I do that caused that to happen?” that comes from hitting a button by mistake when I don’t know Premiere well enough (”Command-Z” is also in competition for the godsend of modern life). This situation of not knowing what I was doing all the time in front of someone else was made doubly hard by knowing I shouldn’t be making it totally obvious just how much I didn’t know. Everyone who’s had a job probably went through the process of working their way up by taking on new challenges — aka stuff they have to learn how to do as they go — and any employer who hires below the going rate should be aware that the person they’re hiring is probably doing that and that’s why they’re willing to work for less. Nevertheless, there’s always this charade where the employee pretends that they’re just giving the employer an awesome deal because they really like the project, and the employer pretends that the person they’ve hired is the super-experienced professional they couldn’t afford to hire who knows everything. And all of that stupid and pointless pretending? I’m not very good at that either – like most women, who tend to be more comfortable learning by asking questions about what we don’t know than faking our way through it, which sure seems more logical if you ask me, but whatevs. Anyway, thank goodness it didn’t really matter on this job, as the director I was working with was female, nice, and knows less about technology than I do, and so is just as big a fan of the “Should we Google how we do that?” technique as I am.

Basically, the hardest thing for me as an editor is that I’m kind of a newbie again, and that’s rough when you’re nearly 50 (okay I’m 48, but I have so many friends turning 49 or 50 this year that I figure I should just go ahead and try to get into the headspace now to try to diminish the trauma later on). Whereas I’m at the point with booming that I can often do it in my sleep — and sometimes I do — as an editor, I need to be not just awake but fully on. This is, like I said, partly why I wanted to switch careers: editing uses so much more of my brain, in addition to a whole lot less of my body. But these past couple of weeks have made me wonder once or twice, “Huh, do I really want to have a job that forces me to think that hard all day long?” I’ve tried to find some way that I can creatively employ myself in my downtime on set — like by tweeting, which I need to do more of and get better at (being pithy? Also hard), or other little tasks like creating new material for our bots — but it’s hard to focus in the short bursts of downtime that I tend to have on TV, and on commercials I have to work less but appear like I’m working more, to make sure people know I’m working, which is also work. Plus, I find that most of my potential for focused, productive thought is ruined by having to get up at five. But then again, if I can’t use my creative energy at my job, then I don’t use all of it up there either — and I think this has always been the conundrum. We want to be fulfilled by what we do for money, but if that side job becomes too engaging, will we lose our drive to do and be something more? And on the flip side, how do you hold on to that drive for 2.5 decades and still feel like the goal is worth it when your everyday is unsatisfying?

I know the particulars will get easier if editing becomes my full-time job. I just didn’t ever think I’d be starting again, even partly, at this age, and having to face these types of questions. That might be the biggest reason why I put off trying out editing as a job for so long, and of course now that I have waited this long, it’s harder. You know how science has shown how our brain activity wears in neural pathways that make habits normal and easy for us? These days, when I try to do something new, it’s like I can feel those pathways being scraped in with that tool my dental hygienist uses. And yet, smushing together those tiny pieces of what were once celluloid and are now zeros and ones that somehow appear as little purple rectangles to powerfully tell a story or convey a point is fulfilling for me in a way that hitting all my cues during a dialogue scene will never be. In one way they’re quite similar: a feat of strength and dexterity that only a handful of people will ever witness and probably never remember, because the point of doing sound right is that nobody notices, vs. making it possible for someone else to tell their story seamlessly in a style that will most likely only be attributed to them. They’re both ultimately just tiny names somewhere in the credits that you have to search for, and accepting that as my future might be the real growing up I have to do.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *