What Do Editors Do? (Part 2)
This is part 2 of an interview with noted movie/tv editor Terry Kelley. If you missed part 1, you can see it here.
You started editing with movies, and then moved to editing TV shows?
Now there are not as many movies being made. There used to be 700 feature films a year. Initially the major studios had movies locked in, in the ‘40’s. But when they had to divest [in 1948,after antitrust suits], a lot of independent studios started. They made many of the indie films for under $1 M, especially in the 60’s & 70’s – such as Easy Rider, Raging Bull. The Writer’s strike [2007-2008] and the crisis with the hedge funds cut back on those. A lot of the funding of the indies came from hedge funds.
From the standpoint of editing, what is the difference between editing a feature film and editing a TV episode?
The art is the same. You have more time to work in feature films. These days with digital cameras you don’t have film with its expensive processing. So you may have 2 to 5 camera’s rolling. You get as much shot per day, whether film or TV. But a TV episode is shot in 7 to 8 days. As editor I have to deliver a 45 minute show in 6 weeks. For a feature film, I would have 6 months.
That’s a lot to do in a short time! How can you do that?
Practice! (laughs) Different directors shoot in different ways. A new director may give you one of their shows or one that they like from someone else: “I’m thinking of using this kind of style.” So you know exactly what they want. I’ll be editing while they are still shooting, so I have to be on the same page as the director.
I had been working on several Paramount shows. They had already put together a team to work on Deep Space 9. Usually editor #1 works on the first episode, editor #2 on the second, etc. The editor who would ordinarily be working on “Past Prologue” was cutting the pilot so couldn’t work on this one. I was brought in as a swing editor, then became editor for other episodes.
How did working on Star Trek compare with working on other TV series?
In a way it is like any other series. But it had a more leisurely schedule. Star Trek scripts were locked down like iron. The whole season was known in advance. If you drop a line of dialogue, you have to make sure that it doesn’t interfere with something down the line.
In comparison, Homeland has an arc for the season – so you can’t mess with that. But you have more flexibility. It has a “mystery” structure – clues unveil the situation, but there is some flexibility. Often actors like to contribute their own dialogue – but they may not be good writers. They can’t think ahead in terms of the overall plot as well as the writers can. They can help with the delivery of a line of dialogue – suggest a change in wording that can make it more realistic. With Deep Space 9 scripts they couldn’t do even that. So it was very rigid for the actors too. That’s why in the first few episodes, the actors were wooden – less spontaneity. Later they could get more relaxed into their roles.
How were the Deep Space 9 episodes shot?
The episodes were shot on film. The film was then digitized on a Rank [Cintel machine] film scanner, which sent the film through a gate, where a chip captured the image. The image was transferred to DigiBeta [short for Digital Betacam, the single most successful professional broadcast digital recording video tape format in history]. This video data was then bumped down to ¾” tapes, less expensive tapes to work with. A strange process – analog film converted to digital, then transferred to an analog tape.
How has the technology changed during the time you’ve been an editor?
I started taping film together by hand! Absolutely different today. In the old days, a visual effect, say a dissolve, might take 3 or 4 days to do. With digitizing, it can be done immediately. Very fast, more options. Let’s say I wanted to make a shot longer. With film I would have to find what I had cut from the film and splice it back in. With many little snippets of film that have been cut out, finding the one needed is difficult. But now with digital cameras, I don’t lose the pieces I cut out. They are still in the computer. And I can extend the shot via the computer itself.
Used to be that some people felt digital was a lower quality than analog. Do you find that true? Is there a tradeoff for easy of editing?
No. The quality is so much better now that there isn’t much of a trade-off.
What about 24 vs 48 frames? What Jackson is using for the Hobbit?
No, that doesn’t matter to an editor. Actually Douglas Trumball [who did ground-breaking special effects in 2001, Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters, etc] experimented with film speed. He shot at different rates and played back at various rates – and measured emotional reactions such as galvanic skin response, respiration, etc. He found that the optimal speed for visceral response was 60 frames – both recorded at 60 and played back at 60. Using 70m film and shooting/playing back at 60 frames gives a very realistic effect, but is very expensive. I’m not sure it’s worth it. It’s more useful for certain kinds of action sequences, but not much good for dialogue scenes.
What software do you prefer?
Final cut Pro version 7. Also Avid. They both have versatility – deep feature flexibility of the programs. They have thousands of features – which is a lot to learn.
It is common to get 2 or 3 video tracks plus 15 audio tracks – takes up lots of space! I use a Mac workstation – 8G RAM (16 is faster), 8 to 12 processors. 8 to 12 terabytes (1 terabyte = 1000 gigabytes). I have some 4 terabyte drives in my computer drives.
Terry has been working on Homeland. Over the season break, he worked on “Bathroom Diary”. It’s a short film to be used as a presentation promoting a full feature about a probation officer with a sick father who becomes a drug dealer, then an addict. This spring he is cutting a pilot for “Gang Related”. The story revolves around a gang member sent in to infiltrate the San Francisco Police Department who must balance his obligations to his crime family and his new family, the SFPD’s Gang Task Force.
Thank you, Terry Kelley! You’ve given us an interesting look behind the scenes. I know that, thanks to you, I’ll be looking at shows with a different eye. And I’ll look for your name in the credits. Live Long & Prosper.