Aspects of Editing 1st Qtr 2019

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1st Qtr, 2019

Despite the rapid advances in digital technology, the fundamental role of the picture editor hasn’t really changed. Whether physically splicing film or editing via a touchscreen, what the picture editor has always brought to a project is the ability to introduce order into the randomness of hours upon hours of raw footage to ultimately tell a compelling story. As editors we are paid for our opinions, our personal tastes and our ability to consistently make thousands upon thousands of good micro-decisions on a daily basis.

Yes, bedside manner and an ability to collaborate with others is also important, and knowledge of the latest technology is also a given, but that gap can largely be filled by surrounding yourself with an excellent team. But there is no replacement for your creativity.

A woodsman was once asked, “What would you do if you had just five minutes to chop down a tree?” He answered, “I would spend the first two-and-a-half minutes sharpening my axe.” Although the fact that as film editors our #1 asset is our creativity, we have adopted a less-than-ideal lifestyle and enabled a work culture that does everything it can to completely rob us of our ability to be creative. We spend the majority of our waking hours sitting in dark rooms (usually without windows) behind computers screens. We eat lunch (and dinner) at our desks. We put our kids to bed via FaceTime. Late nights are simply a given, and we routinely work six-day weeks (seven when it’s crunch time). And worst of all, we have all collectively accepted that 60 hours per week is a ‘standard’ contract despite all modern scientific research proving that anything beyond 45 hours rapidly diminishes productivity (and our sanity).

We devote an ungodly amount of our time, energy and attention to chopping down a giant redwood tree and carving it into a beautiful pencil (within an impossible deadline) when we should instead be spending the majority of our time sharpening the axe. (Hint: You are the axe). But with the rapid advancement of modern technology and the expectation that we now practically do everything in our timelines, what other choice do we have? It simply isn’t possible to prioritize our well-being ahead of our careers anymore.

Having interviewed some of the top editors in our industry, I am 100-percent confident the job hasn’t gotten any harder, the hours aren’t longer, and the deadlines aren’t any tighter than they were decades ago. As Walter Murch, ACE, told me in an interview: “There’s a famous story at Universal Studios from 40 years ago. There was some terrible deadline, and they were throwing as many people on the problem as they could and people were working 16-20 hours a day.

Finally, the person responsible went to the head of postproduction and said, ‘We can’t keep going on like this, people are dropping like flies.’ And the answer was, ‘Get more flies.’” The job is no tougher now than it has ever been. The only fundamental difference between the lifestyle of the editor decades ago versus today is that editing no longer requires physical effort or movement … editing is now a 100% sedentary activity that requires nothing more than a keyboard. I’m just as guilty as everyone else of locking myself in the ‘edit cave’ for weeks on end without exercise, sleep or sunlight, and I unfortunately experienced the consequences of working a sedentary job for long hours the hard way very early in my career.

As a young editor only recently inducted into ACE, I’m okay admitting that I’ve never edited actual film (outside of a 16mm student project). When my professional career began just short of 20 years ago I was working with Avid and the early versions of Final Cut Pro. I lived and breathed film editing and couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. And I was good enough at it that I quickly transitioned from assisting to editing only five months out of college. By 25, I was editing my first feature film for Fox Searchlight, and the schedule was arduous. At one point I was working with a director for 16 hours per day, seven days per week for just short of three months straight without a single day off. Once hiatus hit, I crashed. Hard. So hard in fact that I experienced burnout and anxiety so bad that it led to my first (but not last) bout of suicidal depression. I distinctly remember sitting in the dark one evening with my head in my hands thinking, “I can’t live like this anymore.” Knowing how passionate I was about the craft of film editing, I knew there was no way I would survive the next 40 years of my career treating myself like a Ford Pinto.

So I decided it was time to begin treating myself like a Ferrari, because it requires a high-performance machine to do the kind of work we do for a living. This realization led to over a decade of research and experimentation where I dove deep into the psychology of human behavior, habit formation, workflow efficiency, biomechanics, exercise physiology and the effects of nutrition and sleep on cognition and creativity. I attempted every day to apply everything I was learning about athletic performance and human potential to optimize my role as a film editor and maximize my creativity (and avoid burnout).

While there are countless ways to optimize your creativity and well-being, if I were to take all the various knowledge I’ve learned in over a decade and narrow it down to just one thing, my fundamental discovery is that the most detrimental thing to our creativity is being sedentary. It’s that simple. The less you move, the more difficult it is to be creative.

Carol Littleton, ACE, experienced this firsthand: “If I was working with a Moviola I would stand all day long. You would be rewinding film, splicing … you’d constantly be in motion and always moving film around. Only recently when I moved from film to Avid the first thing I noticed was that I was far more sedentary.

Sitting and sitting and sitting and sitting and sitting just drove me crazy. I wasn’t eating as well, I wasn’t taking breaks, I wasn’t thinking straight, and I would forget footage … I never forgot footage! So I decided to go back to the things that kept me going while I was cutting film.” If you’ve had the pleasure of meeting Carol, you know that’s she’s 70 years old going on 25. She has more energy, clarity and vibrancy than most young assistant editors I know. Clearly she’s onto something when she says, “If you take care of yourself, everything else will just fall into place.”

So let’s start taking care of ourselves and begin collectively taking back our health, one literal step at a time. Here are three simple suggestions to get you started sharpening your axe.

1. Never allow yourself to work in the same position for more than 60 minutes at a time. We’ve all heard the term by now: ‘Sitting is the new smoking.’ And countless research has proven how detrimental chronic sitting can be to your health (including drastically shortening your lifespan). But here’s the good news: There’s nothing wrong with sitting. The problem is being sedentary. Sitting, standing, kneeling, doesn’t matter. All are detrimental to your health if done for long periods of time without interruption. But they are also detrimental to your ability to generate ideas and be creative. If you’re trying to solve creative problems and meet a tight deadline, the last thing on your mind is what might happen to your health in a few decades – but not being able to think clearly is another story. So make it a point to simply move around for 1-2 minutes every hour, or ideally every 30 minutes. It’s literally as simple as standing up then sitting back down again. Or touching your toes. Or walking down the hall and right back to your desk. Height-adjustable workstations were a novelty 10 years ago, but they are now practically standard from most rental companies. Take advantage of them and change your working position frequently. If you’re having trouble reminding yourself to move enough, make it a point to drink tons of water throughout the day. Your bladder will do a great job of reminding you to take frequent breaks!

2. Get out of your office and take at least one walking break every day. I know, I know. You don’t have time for breaks.
But from a scientific perspective there is nothing more beneficial to generating creative ideas than walking. According to a Stanford research study, “A person’s creative output increases by an average of 60 percent when walking.” Think about it this way: When was the last time you had an amazing creative insight blindly staring into your computer screen? Walking activates what is called the ‘default network’ in the brain, and I find that I solve the majority of my creative problems during my afternoon walks.

Like Walter Murch, I make sure while I’m on my walks I have a way to capture my ideas and record them (he uses a voice recorder, I use the ‘voice memo’ app on my phone), a process he says is like having a ‘mental butterfly net.’ Remember, creativity is not only a part of our job, it IS our job. Therefore thinking means we’re still ‘on the clock,’ whether we’re in front of our workstations or not.

3. Make it a rule to never eat lunch (or dinner) at your desk. Ever. I cannot stress enough how unhealthy it is to chronically eat at your workstation. It inhibits digestion, it raises your stress levels, and it’s just one of many missed opportunities to change your perspective during the day, get some air and actually be social with other human beings. But we have fallen into the trap of thinking there aren’t enough hours in the day, so it’s no longer time we can afford. Moreover, most productions now furnish free lunches and dinners … with the caveat that you’ll stay at your desk to eat them.

I call these free meals ‘edible handcuffs.’ If you do the math, it doesn’t add up. If you take your hourly wage (let’s use an even number of $50 per hour) and subtract the cost of the meal (generally around $15), you are essentially paying someone $35 for the privilege of eating in front of a computer screen and skipping a much-needed break that will actually benefit your creativity.

Whenever I interview successful editors and break down the keys to their success and longevity, a common theme is the refusal to work through meals unless there is absolutely no other option. I simply cannot put it better than Jeffrey Ford, ACE: “Taking care of yourself and taking breaks is a strength, not a weakness. Your physical well-being is connected to your mental well-being is connected to your success as a creative professional.”

I promise that it is actually possible to excel in your career because you prioritize your health, not despite it. If you’re in this business for the long haul, stop treating your health and well-being like a game of checkers and start playing a game of chess. And the first step is taking the first step – away from your desk, that is.