Friday, August 15, 2014

The Anonymous Art

I have advice for any young person starting out in film, TV or video production. Find a craft that you love and get good at it, so you always have a job. For me, that craft is editing.
         I am thankful for my choice. I learned the craft of film and TV editing early in my career, and it has always been a joy for me, and a steady way for me to make a living.
         My first job was as a production assistant in the Current Affairs and News Department at KQED in San Francisco, and one day I was driving Mr. Ken Ellis, the News Director, to a shoot. I knew I wouldn’t get that many chances to be alone with him, so I was bold enough to strike up a conversation.
         “Ken, any advice for someone like me, just starting out?”
         “Learn how to edit. That way you’ll always have a job.”
         He was right. I took his advice to heart and I learned the Anonymous Art. Editing is hard to define, but here’s my definition: good editing is taking images and sounds, music and effects, eliminating most of it, and combining your best choices into a story so compelling that it pulls the viewer in completely, and they experience the story as a whole, unaware of how it has been put together.
         That’s why it’s anonymous. My goal is to do my job so well that I disappear. The wrong edit, a musical stumble, or an unnecessary flourish will just remind everyone that there is someone behind the curtain manning the controls.
         What makes it an art is nebulous. When a story works, it’s not always obvious why, since the work itself is hidden within the storytelling. Likewise, when a story almost works yet is not quite satisfying, it also hard to pinpoint what has gone wrong. There are dozens of ways to order and re-order the same material, and two editors often have different ideas of what’s “best” in the footage they are given. This means two editors will always edit the same material in a different way. But when the results shine, it’s clear that something almost magical has happened. That’s what can elevate this anonymous process from a craft to an art. 
         There are some trade-offs that go with it, of course. But every disadvantage is an advantage, if you look at it from another angle (like different shots in an edit bay).

         The editing process is solitary and laborious...unless you like being alone. I have the soul of a writer and editor, so I’m fine with being by myself for long stretches.
         It takes years to learn how to do it well...which means you can’t fake it, either. That gives you job security.
         The director, producer and even the actor take credit for your work...but they create the editing jobs. A TV show generally has one producer and one director per episode. Go down a few tiers, however, and that’s where you find plenty of work for editors.
         You also learn how to be a better director and producer by starting as an editor, since you see what works and what doesn’t, and you end up fixing it or making it shine.
         Editing is also a refuge. I have been a writer, director and producer, and all three jobs can be frustrating and exhausting. You work long hours, often far from home, and your day is never done. There is always some other phone call or tweak you can make. These jobs can also suddenly end, and you may then go for months without another directing or producing gig.
         Most of all, I am thankful for editing. Years ago, it taught me how to direct and produce, and gave me steady enough work that I could create side projects of my own. Now I am in a new phase of my career, and I am stepping back from producing and directing and work on the road, and I want to spend more time writing books and more time with my family. Thus, I am back in the edit bay.
         And I am also thankful for all those people who hired me, and who continue to hire me, because they accepted me for who I am. Almost every producer and director who hired me not only tolerated my side projects, they also encouraged me. They also allowed me to live a normal life, with the ebb and flow of family, illness, life, death, happiness and tragedy, which I bring back to the edit bay as life experience. All they want from me in exchange is to edit the best show I can, and deliver it to them on time.
         For their patience, indulgence and collaboration I am truly grateful.
         And the fact that they keep calling.
         Now, I have to get back to my edit.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Worries on a Summer Day

I’m having a wonderful summer. For the first time in six years, I have a regular work and life schedule while my daughter Lily is out of school. For the past five summers I’ve always been on some insane TV project that kept me busy 60 to 80 hours a week, which always turned my summers into a blur of early mornings and late nights, with blazing hot car rides and late hours in edit bays. I’d hear the building air-conditioning turn off at 8 p.m. and work until the room got too hot to bear.
I swim in the morning in the public pool. I then come home and I make Lily and Robin breakfast. We eat outside in the backyard. We cut red yellow and purple flowers that we know the sun will burn, so we might as well bring them inside and put them in vases on the dining room table. We pick limes off our tree and set them aside to ripen for lime-aide. We feed the neighbors’ pets while they are away and pick ripe figs and grapefruit off their trees. I dress and drift into work just after the light morning rush, work eight hours, and then come home, and we drift into a evening of cooking, eating, laughing, playing in the front yard, cards games and bed. It has been idyllic, and it reminds me to slow down and lead a more simple life.
And I have time to read. 
And to think. 
And to ponder. 
And to worry.
I wonder if this idyll will end, and how it will end, which makes me cherish this California life while I can.
As I write this, Russia is poised to invade Ukraine. Hamas and Israel have stopped fighting and both claimed victory in Gaza, which is in shambles. ISIS is taking over in Syria and Iraq, setting up a brutal caliphate, and jihadists are doing the same in Benghazi, Libya. West Africa has an Ebola outbreak that may have touched 30,000 people. Boko Haram has taken over the northeastern portion of Nigeria. In South America, Argentina is in default on its loans. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world.

Mexican drug cartels control much of Mexico, and although there isn’t as much open warfare in the streets, there is still kidnapping and murder in every city and 25,000 people have gone “missing” in the last five years. Those are just the political conflicts that come to mind as I write this and circle the globe in my mind.
Then we reach California again, and my current bliss, with an underlying awareness of our current fragility. We are in the midst of a five year long drought that may be a 50 or 500 year drought, which the American West has gone through in the past, before global climate change exaggerated every weather pattern.

And how many of our global political conflicts are actually expressions of that global climate change? Most North African and Mid-East countries are suffering from drought, poor crop yields, and hunger, with large populations of people under 30 who are underemployed. This is definitely the case in Egypt, which has now drifted back to military rule. It’s the hot brutal summer after the Arab Spring. China is polluted and the Russian permafrost is melting, creating huge sink holes. Every conflict is a conflict over resources and who should get to control them -- and humans justify their warfare by blaming “the other” and invoking their version of God.
A friend recently posed a question on Social Media -- has World War 3 officially begun? Maybe it has, and we just need historians to give us an actual “spark” date, like the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, which sparked World War 1 a century ago.

A hundred years ago, California was blithely ignorant of the crises going on in the rest of the world. In 1915, San Francisco hosted the 1915 World Fair, or the Panama Pacific International Exhibition, to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, and to also celebrate the rebuilding and rebirth of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. While we in the West strolled the International Pavilions and boated in the lagoon that surrounded the Palace of Fine Arts, World War trench warfare had already begun.
I feel we may be repeating ourselves. California is slowly recovering from the economic downturn. We are out of the red. Investors are buying our bonds again. We feel we are on a rise.  I am enjoying the idyll, and I hope that it continues. I hope that winter comes and brings a normal El Nino weather pattern that fills our reservoirs but doesn’t flood us. Like Goldilocks, I hope it’s “just right.” At the same time, I worry that this idyll will end harshly, and there is hard work ahead for all of us. What form it will take, I do not know, and I do not know how to prepare for it, except to rest, live a simple life and be ready when it happens.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Summer Memories

Summer creates moments in which time stands still.  The moments become time capsules buried deep within your brain, waiting for the perfect trigger, and then, with the right summer sight, sound, or smell, your unconscious will unearth an old capsule for you, and send you back in time. 
Here are some of the summer triggers that unearth my time capsules.
The smell of cedar --
I’m at Boy Scout camp near the Russian River, lying on a picnic table staring up through the branches of a gigantic coastal redwood tree, over 100 feet high. The hot sun is directly overhead but the tree’s branches are so thick, the hot bright sunlight filters to a dappled warmth by the time it reaches me. A breeze moves the branches sending the grey shadows dancing. I’m supposed to be somewhere, but I don’t care.

The sound of day crickets --
I’m in the hot hills near Geyserville, CA, walking through tall yellow grass between ancient California oak trees. The insects are so loud they sound like a high-pitched pulsing electric hum. A friend and I are hunting for Obsidian, the jet-black rock that reflects like glass. It’s everywhere around here, mostly in chips and flakes, until we come to a bare patch and I find a piece of obsidian the size of a cantaloupe. When I pick it up, one side is so sharp it slices open my right palm like a surgical blade. I’m bleeding and I’m a long way from the cabin where my family is staying. 

The strong smell of chlorine --
I’m shivering with a dozen other day campers as we wait in line for the automatic showers at indoor Larsen Pool. Someone hits the button on the floor and jets of cold water hit us from the side and from above. We’re then herded onto the pool deck for our lesson, which we all dread. Outside it is foggy and grey, so why is summer the time when we must learn how to swim? The smell of new chlorine is so strong a cloud of it seems to hang inside the vast cement and glass structure, stinging our nostrils. The lifeguard blows the whistle and we all jump in.

The feeling of salt water drying on my skin --
I’m on the island of Molokai, standing on a long quarter cement dock waiting for a ferry to take me back to the island of Maui. The Pacific Ocean is a vast blue plate that stretches in front of me, and it seems to curve at the edges. I dive off the dock, climb the metal ladder and dive in again. The ferry never comes, so I sit down and let the sun and hot breeze dry me off, and the salt itches my skin. I’m happy, but I wonder where I’m going to spend the night.

The taste of a root beer float --
I’m with my father in a station wagon, parked at an A&W Root beer and Hamburger Stand on a road deep in the backwoods of Ontario Canada. He loves the Mama Burger and I love the Teen Burger. He tells me that he’s been coming to A&W since he was my age, and he still loves it. He offers to buy me my first root beer float, and I fall in love with the taste. Root beer floats make me happy and make me miss my father.

The smell of menthol cigarettes --
I am in a crowd at Civic Center in San Francisco, watching the Ramones power through yet another free concert. They’ve given two so far in the Bay Area this summer. They announce they are America’s best band, and I believe them. Some young Filipino punks in front of me pass around packs of menthol cigarettes and light them up as the band rips into another three-minute three-chord power pop punk song. 

The sound of a water balloon breaking --
It’s carnival day at summer day camp, and there are booths and games in the church basement. When you win a ticket you can either trade it for a toy, or get a kiss from a counselor. What? A kiss from a counselor? That’s something that would never be allowed nowadays, but no one objected then. Counselor Joanie is beautiful, and at her booth you must take a Bic razor and remove shaving cream from the outside of a water balloon without breaking it. I break many water balloons  -- splosh, splosh, splosh -- before I finally get good at it. Once I do, I shave a half dozen balloons and make out with Joanie, age 16, who doesn’t seem to mind kissing someone six years younger than her.

The smell of burning metal --
I am driving my father’s Peugeot to Lake Tahoe with Paul Marshall to work a summer job for the weekend. We’re having a blast...until the engine overheats near Auburn. The radiator blows and loses all its water in an instant, and the hot smell of burning metal fills the car as the engine block warps. A highway patrol car pushes us to a gas station where we must pay the man to let us park it there, and we spend the rest of the weekend hitch-hiking back to San Francisco, renting a truck with a trailer hitch, driving back up to Auburn and then towing the Peugeot back to San Mateo. The entire time I know that the car is ruined and I must find a way to tell my father.

The smell of rotting seaweed --
I am on the beach in San Diego, producing a TV show about the Paskowitz Surf Camp and Surfer’s Healing. There are piles of rotting gooey seaweed on the beach and thousands of sand flies rise up as you step across them and encircle you in a cloud. But the day is perfect, nothing goes wrong, and five hundred people are happy running on the beach and playing in the water. I stand shoulder and shoulder with my colleague Susan and we drape our arms around each other’s shoulders and watch the late afternoon sun turn the ocean the color of bright silver. We compliment each other and say that we won’t forget this moment -- and I don’t.

These sights, sounds and smells are stronger in the summer, which makes the memories more vivid, allowing me to live in parallel summers simultaneously. That’s what I love about the season! 
What triggers your time capsules? 
More next week!