Rhetorical Answer

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A response to the question never asked

Dual perspectives on the final cut

Tomorrow will be the last session of my Art of Editing class. The class definitely became more interesting in the last couple of weeks, largely due to an increase in student participation as we gave our final presentations. Each person brought in a clip from one of their favorite movies or television shows and discussed the editing techniques used. For my own presentation, I showed the first few minutes of a season five episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called “The Body.” Only a few of the other students had seen the show before, but I was happy to discover that most people seemed to appreciate the brief segment. There is something thrilling about sharing something beloved with another person, be it a favorite song, TV show, or place. Watching them experience it for the first time recalls a whiff of the original euphoria, that magic moment of delighted discovery that leaves an indelible mark on the memory but fades with subsequent exposures to the same material.

I had watched the episode several times while preparing for my presentation and noticed details I had never registered consciously before. My understanding of the characters and show’s construction evolved as a result, but the revelations were academic in nature, not driven by the fan’s enthusiasm that had led me to revisit the content in the first place. It reminded me that there is a definite distinction between studying a work of art as a critic/producer and consuming it as a spectator; while the former can deepen one’s appreciation, it cannot match the emotional charge of the latter. Once my brain latches onto the technical aspects of the production, it is no longer in the state of suspended disbelief that would otherwise buoy it through the narrative. Evaluating the framing of shots and transitions between handheld and steadycam, I cannot feel the heroine’s despair as she finds her mother lying limp on the sofa. Examining the manipulation of time through a fantasy sequence, I’m not swept along on the brief wave of false hope that the heroine experiences as the EMTs attempt to revive her mother. My classroom audience operated one one level, and I, in the didactic role, operated on a parallel level.

How does the discerning artist reconcile these two modalities? Is it possible to fuse them into a single multi-layered experience, to learn craft while enjoying the ride? To me, it feels like trying to stand on one foot, then stand on the other without lowering the first. If you can manage it, congratulations – you’ve learned how to levitate. For the rest of us poor one-foot-hopping wannabes, the rewind/play buttons are there for us, time after time.

Filed under: Education, Film, Reflection, ,

The Art of Edited

My Art of Editing instructor commented this week that we are now halfway through the semester and asked if anyone has any questions or comments about that fact. I do. I want to know when we are going to start discussing the Art of Editing. Because so far we’ve watched a hodge podge of sometimes grainy, sometimes inadvertently silent, sometimes disappointingly muddled movie clips accompanied by only the most blindingly obvious observations, and it’s starting to grate on me.

I think the trouble stems from the fact that we’re trying to analyze the creative process of editing based on the finished product. It seems to me that’s like trying to analyze the process of novel writing based on the finished book. Sure, if you have an instinct for what works and what doesn’t, that may be all you need, but I wouldn’t sign up for a writing class where I sit and read individual chapters of novels and hope to be struck by insight. That seems like A Waste of Money™. We had one good class where we saw the dailies from Gunsmoke and three alternative edits, discussed the choices the different editors made, and commented on the effectiveness of those choices. We focused on the decision-making process, technical and aesthetic considerations, and storytelling. This, to me, is the art of editing! So why don’t we do that every week?

Filed under: Education, Film, New York

The Sound of Spring

Hello! I’m back from Spring Break, and I’m ready to finish up the final month of Sound Design. For the rest of the course, I’ll be creating the soundtrack for a short film in ProTools using the audio recordings previously gathered in Washington Square Park.

As an extra twist, the instructor is having each of the original groups use a different group’s recordings during the editing process. When he announced this at the start of class this week, there was a collective furtive glance around the room as we all realized that all of our painstaking slating and meticulous recording would benefit another lucky party. But, as he rightly pointed out, the people doing the sound editing are often not the same people doing the recording. Sneaky, though, how he didn’t tell us until after we finished recording…

On the bright side, I am starting to get more comfortable using ProTools. I’m finding that syncing footsteps to picture is much less frustrating than cutting marching band music clips together and, believe it or not, oddly relaxing. Perhaps I should market a sleep-aid sound effects CD featuring the regular clop-clop-clop of shoes on asphalt in lieu of the more typical ocean waves.

Filed under: Education, Film, New York

Fun with Foley

Again, Sound Design eclipses The Art of Editing! Plagued by audio/visual issues, my editing class this week limped along with snowy footage and unintentionally silent clips from Law and Order and Fatal Attraction. We did examine an interesting planned sequence from Doctor Zhivago involving an exterior crane shot following the action inside a building through a series of windows, but as the instructor noted, such shots involve equipment and expense typically beyond the means of independent filmmakers. I would be happy just to have a lighting kit!

In contrast, this week’s Sound Design class featured a practical, hands-on, and relatively low-budget activity: recording sounds for Foley in Washington Square Park. We ventured into the darkness in groups of 3-4, each group armed with a Sennheiser shotgun, windsock, field recorder, headphones, and flashlight. By the end of the 3-hour class, our noses were runny, our toes were numb, our batteries were dead… oh yes, and we had some great sound recordings, including several takes of a total stranger (who had approached us to ask what we were doing) exclaiming, “Boy, that’s great ginger ale!” That little gem, in case you were wondering, will be used for ADR (automated dialog replacement aka dubbing) in post-production.

We also recorded footsteps on asphalt, dirt, and brick; some chains rattling on a metal fence; a squeaky gate; a security barrier scraping across the ground; fizzing soda; mouth swishing; soda swallowing; paper bag crinkles; and a pen dragging across a metal mesh fence. I was fortunate to have group mates who were friendly, funny, and organized, so even though we nearly froze out there, we all had a good time, and I’m fairly confident that we got all the material we will need for our upcoming ProTools session next week.

Incidentally, if you’ve never walked around a public park listening through headphones to sounds picked by by a shotgun microphone, I highly recommend it. Through the power of technology, it’s like you have super hearing; every pebble roll, every leaf shudder, every far-off conversation in the mic’s line is magnified and amazingly distinct. I kept getting the urge to stop, stare off into space for a moment, say “Someone’s in trouble!” and leap into the sky.

Filed under: Education, Film, , ,

Stage and screen…and ProTools

I had to get up at 5:00 AM this morning, and I’m feeling a bit sick, so apologies in advance for what probably reads as a rambling post.

First off, some good news: My sketch group performed in Sketchubator NYC at the PIT on Saturday to all-around positive reviews. *joy* The audience seemed to dig our faux New York accents, mastered by watching My Cousin Vinny the night before, and they reacted quite audibly to the material – always an encouraging sign. Being early in the show’s lineup, we got to do our thing on stage and then sit in the house and enjoy the rest as audience members. There was a party right after the show, too, so I got to chat with a lot of the audience and cast members over beers. A most memorable and fun time was had. Special thanks goes out to Party Central USA for hosting with hilarity.

In this past week’s editing class, I learned about editing workflow, from getting the dailies (raw footage for each scene, including the master shot plus coverage) to producing the final cut. I also learned that it costs, at a minimum, tens of thousands of dollars to produce a fairly basic live-action commercial. It takes a script writer, a storyboard artist, a producer, a director, lighting and sound experts, a script supervisor, actors, props, costumes, music and sound effects, a location and set dressing, cameras, microphones, cables, stands, lights, computers, editing and sound software, and food to feed all those union workers! I’ve seen a lot of commercials in my life, and yet it never occurred to me how many varied and specialized skill sets are involved in their production. If I still had a television set, I might now feel a twinge of guilt pressing the mute button.

On the sound design front, the highly anticipated field trip to Washington Square Park last Wednesday to record sounds for Foley got postponed due to bitterly cold weather. It was freezing all over the city, but for some reason, the area around Washington Square Park always feels ten degrees colder than anywhere else. Instead, the class got a little taste of ProTools. We learned a few keyboard shortcuts and how to set up a session but nothing to sink our teeth into yet. This week is forecast to be in the balmy 40s, so we will try again this Wednesday to do some recording in the field. I am keeping my gloved fingers crossed the weather is more accomodating this time.

Filed under: Education, Film, Stage,

Expensive toys

Another week, another round of classes, and once again, I enjoyed the sound design class more than the editing class. However, I’m not sure how much of that was influenced by straining to watch grainy, black and white silent film clips in the latter and getting to play with hundreds of dollars’ worth of electronics in the former.

The equipment we worked with this week in sound design class included a $100 Shure SM57 dynamic mic, a $200 Sennheiser ME66 short shotgun mic, a $350 Blue Microphones Bluebird condenser mic, a $350 Audio Technica AT825 stereo mic, and a $1,300 Fostex FR2 field recorder. And this was the sound equipment provided for student use! The instructor said that the high-end microphones can sell for upwards of $10,000. I’ve heard about how amazing it is that individuals can now buy equipment to make their own indie films, but it still seems quite expensive to me. We didn’t even get to sound mixing yet, and then there’s the cost of the computer and Pro Tools workstation to consider. Next week, weather permitting, we will be venturing out into the night to record some sounds in the neighborhood with the expensive toys we’ve just learned to use. I can hardly wait!

Filed under: Education, Film

The Art of Editing

In contrast to the Sound Design course, the Art of Editing course I just started turns out to be a more traditional humanities theory course: an analytical discussion of film editing techniques in the context of in-class screenings. Back in high school, I loved classes in which topics were subjective and there was no such thing as a wrong answer. Having since endured four years of training in an engineering school, however, I have learned that it’s important to be specific when defending an idea because being vague can be just as unhelpful as being wrong.

I have also learned, independently of school, that the most meticulously researched critical analysis of art can turn out to be complete BS. Alfred Hitchcock’s granddaughter once took a film class and wrote an essay, with her grandfather’s help, analyzing one of his movies. When she showed him the poor grade the analysis received from the instructor, he could only respond, “Well, it was the best I could do.” (I paraphrase from memory here, but you can watch the entire Mary Stone interview on the DVD special features section of To Catch a Thief (1955)). So I had to stifle a little skepticism as I stepped into my first session of The Art of Editing.

The class started with introductions such as the ones I imagine I missed in Sound Design last week. Quite a few of the other students already work in the film and television industry, and I hope to learn more about their day-to-day work experiences as the semester progresses. Since the course has no project lab component, though, I’m not sure what opportunity there will be to socialize. From what I’ve heard, their schedules sound pretty packed, Not that mine is any less so, of course, but theirs make for more interesting cocktail party discussion.

Getting down to business, we watched the first ten minutes of The Piano (1993) and discussed various editing choices the filmmakers with a few vague observations sprinkled with terms like “symbolism.” My internal warning light started flashing at that point, but I did glean a few tips regarding efficient characterization. I was also reminded that I should watch the entire movie again sometime, as the first ten minutes were totally absorbing, and I confess to being a little disappointed when the instructor stopped the DVD player for discussion.

Next we saw a short set of very interesting documentary and narrative films created by the Lumière Brothers, who invented the first movie camera in the 1890s, and an early short by Martin Scorsese called “The Big Shave” (1967). We rounded out the night with the first narrative film called The Great Train Robbery (1903) and an excerpt from Fatal Attraction (1987) to illustrate the evolution from continuous shots to pan editing to more sophisticated cross cuts.

Of all of the clips, the Scorsese film made a particular impression on me. After playing the short, the instructor asked the class what we thought of it. Most people commented that, had they not known anything about the filmmaker’s intent (which was spelled out in a brief on-screen interview with Scorsese beforehand), they would have had a different response to the film. The content was inscrutable enough that the audience could conclude with equal probability that the film was a) boring and pointless or b) a work of genius.

To the viewer leaning toward the first option, certain moments in the film stand out as unusual for no obvious reason. Not being immediately self-explanatory, these moments appear simply ill-considered and ineffective. If, on the other hand, the viewer assumes that everything in the film was a conscious choice by the filmmaker, and if the viewer then brainstorms as to what the filmmaker’s reasons might have been and comes up with brilliant explanations, he tends to go with option b.

The perceived genius of the artist, therefore, depends entirely on the determination and creativity of the critic. I call this the Principle of Inscrutability and look forward to applying it to my own work to elevate it to the level of artistic genius. Feel free to do the same.

Filed under: Education, Film, , ,

Sound beats picture, picture beats rock…

It’s the end of the week for me – the film class week, that is. My first Art of Editing class was yesterday, followed by my second Sound Design class today. Originally, I had been looking forward to the editing class more than the sound design class, but I have to say that, so far, I am enjoying the sound design course more. It reminds me more of an engineering course than a humanities course, but with less math and more Skywalker Ranch references. I can hardly wait until we get our portable recording devices and go trekking around in Washington Square Park waving microphones around in the dark. It will be…how do the 80s teens say it? Awesome.

I finished reading the first handout on basic sound design definitions and psychoacoustics over the weekend, which was a good thing because the instructor just dumped about twelve articles in our laps today to read, in lieu of a textbook, on topics ranging from Foley techniques to polar patterns of microphones. I will be happily occupied for at least the next two weeks reading all of them.

Netflix being rather poky, I only received and watched The Triplets of Belleville yesterday after getting back from editing class. Last minute it may have been, but I completed my first homework assignment on time, thereby guaranteeing that the instructor would not bring it up in today’s class. Nevertheless, I’m glad I saw the film. I was particularly impressed with how much of its rather bizarre plot was conveyed with minimal dialogue, which got me thinking about the contrast with dialogue-heavy American television.

News programs, fake news programs, morning and late night talk shows, sports analysis shows, celebrity soup shows, Judge Judy, Suze Orman, Rachel Ray, and even game shows like Deal or No Deal all pretty much boil down to a studio set filled with frantically talking heads. And I can count on one elbow the number of mainstream silent films that have come out of Hollywood in the past decade. What is it about our culture that makes us averse to television without dialogue?

Filed under: Education, Film, ,

Homewoork

My first assignment for Sound Design puts the “woo!” in homewoork. I’m supposed to watch the animated movie The Triplets of Belleville and note how the filmmakers distinguish characters by giving each of them a signature sound.

The instructor demonstrated the use of signature sounds in class by showing a brief clip from another animated movie, Monsters Inc. As each monster slithered or waddled across the screen, it made a distinctive sound that set it apart from the others. This got me wondering, if I were a character in a movie, what would my signature sound be?

During the a capella song-building exercise my improv ensemble does in rehearsals, I noticed that I have a tendency to riff based on a few patterns of notes like da da da da (beat) ba dum! Repition of these patterns frees up my brain to play around with the tempo and pitch so that my vocalization harmonizes with and reacts to those of the other improvisers. If my signature sound were a pattern like this, I imagine it would vary according to my emotional state in a similar fashion. If I were hopped up on root beer, it would be a manic da da da da (hic) ba dum! If I were debugging code at work, it would be a slower, deliberate da da da daaa baaa DUM.

In the soundtrack of life, what would your signature sound be?

Filed under: Education, Film, , , ,

What is Sound Design?

My first Sound Design class began with an overview of sound, which brought me back to my days in Psychoacoustics Lab in college. I would have never thought any of that course would have come in handy in the future besides providing me with great stories of sitting outside the testing rooms listening to experiment subjects scream in agony as they endured listening to a series of ear-splitting beeps through heavy-duty headphones. Ah, memories. Anyway, I looked over the diagrams of sound waves in the lecture notes and realized I understood what they meant. Score one nerd point!

The instructor then went on to talk a little about polar patterns and frequency response curves of microphones, followed by a few examples of ambient sound. We went through a brief case study analyzing the use of sound effects and music in a clip from the movie Behind Enemy Lines, which made me listen much more carefully than I normally do while watching a film, and concluded that the audio component really does drive the emotion in a scene far more than the visual component. If you don’t believe me, try watching some heart-wrenching movie scene with the sound muted. Then watch it again with sound. In terms of emotional impact, the version with sound will win hands-down, and the effect is even more pronounced if the scene is scored. Think of any scene with a swelling choral chant at the dramatic turning point, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The instructor summed up the use of music in film in a thought-provoking way. He said that the film-maker uses music to cue the audience to the appropriate emotional response. As an audience member, I was initially bothered by the idea that I was being cued to feel anything. Where do filmmakers get the right to manipulate me emotionally? But then he pointed out that aim of art is to put the audience into a state of suspended disbelief. Once in that state, we are able to go on a journey with the artist and see the world through that artist’s unique lens.

I can see the merit in his argument, but so much of today’s media is designed to manipulate consumers for commercial purposes that it still makes me uncomfortable to realize how much of that manipulation has been honed to an art. As it’s largely unavoidable in this technology-saturated environment in which we live, I suppose I’m better off being able to recognize the techniques. And perhaps, after mastering them myself, take over the world? *Dr. Evil pinkie smile*

Filed under: Education, Film, , , ,

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