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WORKING WEEKEND: Hollywood Film Editors Offer Their Take on DVD

14 Dec, 2001 By: Bruce Apar

One of the more captivating scenes in Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven occurs shortly after the film's opening. Brad Pitt's character, Rusty Ryan, whose particular criminal talent is never fully explained (in line with the film's devil-may-care air of sangfroid), has been reduced to tutoring a raffish group of hot young actors in the nuances of casino card games. Soon, George Clooney, in the title role of heist ringleader Danny Ocean., joins this card camp.

The ensuing scene plays tentative and spontaneous at the same time, flaunting the kind of trademark naturalism synonymous with a Robert Altman film.

Recently, I asked the supervising sound editor on Ocean's Eleven, Larry Blake, whether this scene was in fact scripted or improvised. My vantage point for posing the question was as moderator of a panel of film editors this past week at a conference in New York City called Avid World East. Avid is a maker of editing systems (software and hardware) that are the standard for film and broadcast production.

Blake, who also supervised the sound mixing on Soderbergh's other recent hits – including Traffic, Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight -- replied that while the film's distinctively free-flowing, offbeat conversational tone is a testament to screenwriter Ted Griffin, the scene in question was largely improvised. He credited the work of editor Stephen Mirrione in cutting the final scene to make it coherent. "If you saw the dailies," said Blake, "you'd really be impressed by the job Steve did." (Dailies are the raw footage the director and editor review each day to make sure they have what they need of the scenes just shot.)

He's referring to editor Mirrione there, but the team effort on this film is very impressive. Based on a roundly derided film featuring Frank Sinatra at the peak of his Rat Pack rabble-rousing days, Ocean's Eleven has a flimsy, incredible premise with cardboard characters. Yet Soderbergh and Griffin ingeniously turn it into a stylized lark that looks and feels effortless. S.S. is making it abundantly clear with each new production that he could direct a telephone book and make it fun to watch.

Another panelist, Tim Squires – who recently was honored with several awards for his editing of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and cut Robert Altman's current release Gosford Park (just named best film by of 2001 by the New York Film Critics) – remarked that "dailies are something you'll never see on a DVD."

Taking full advantage of my moderator's bully pulpit position at the podium, I had to cut in to ask Squires why wouldn't dailies be included on a DVD, since almost everything else about the moviemaking process seems to be finding its way onto the disks. He responded that dailies are "too boring." Blake offered an au contraire, "There seems to be a lot of people out there with a lot of time on their hands."

Mark Goldblatt, who edited Armageddon and Pearl Harbor for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and also cut both of James Cameron's Terminator films, chimed in that if dailies were included on a DVD, "they'd be edited," implying that such sanitized packaging for public consumption effectively would render them as something other than genuine dailies as filmmakers view them. After all, dailies by definition are unedited footage.

A member of the audience, all of whom were editors -- though not with the marquee credentials of the panelists -- asked if the rush to cram behind-the-scenes elements onto DVDs was becoming an intrusion during production or post production.

Goldblatt answered that it's not an intrusion on the set; since there are always so many people milling about anyhow, a few more don't make a difference. He added, though, a tad tartly, that now "DVD producers come to the edit room to discuss what possibly can be added to the special, special, special edition DVD. A lot of it is interesting and a lot of it is just a shill to sell more DVDs. They always want us to put more on DVDs, since we have all the time in the world to do that."

Finally, I wondered aloud if these elite film editors felt the "magic" of cinema was being demystified too much in their eyes due to the bonus material on DVDs.

Tina Hirsch, an editor on the film Woodstock, Robert Downey Sr. cult classic Putney Swope, Gremlins and TV series The West Wing, said she welcomed moviegoers and home viewers becoming more aware of the vital role played by the anonymous people behind the scenes, such as editors.

Becoming more aware myself of the art of film editing, I heartily concur. The more you learn about what film editors do, the more you appreciate how easily they can make or break a movie. Once filming is completed, the work just begins to create a compelling narrative and shape character development. The editor has critical control over the impact of individual scenes, over actors' performances, and over the entire arc of the storyline.

Ocean's Eleven sound man Blake, though, is not convinced everything needs to be shown on a DVD, he says: "I'm not sure we want the public peeking under the kimono that much."

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