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May 19, 2021

Conversation with Professor John Rosenberg

Could you tell us about your career navigation? What inspired you to become a film editor?

I never planned to be a film editor. Like many film students, I pursued directing and cinematography in school. And I wrote. I actually tried to avoid editing classes. To support myself I painted houses and drove a produce truck. One day a friend told me that a studio film desperately needed an assistant editor for two weeks to help deliver their first cut. They were paying much better than my other jobs and it would be a short gig, so I applied. I got the job and after two weeks the studio screened the film, rejected the cut, fired most everyone and brought in one of Hollywood’s top film doctors to fix it. He asked me to stay. We ended up doing five features together and eventually he helped me get a film to edit, which became a hit (the Christmas classic Prancer). I discovered, in those early days assisting, the enormous influence editing has on a film. I fell in love with the profession. Over the years, editing has opened many doors, including working personally with Jack Nicholson, Ice-T, Colin Firth, Kelly McGillis and many others. I was asked to produce several films and to run post production for a large indie studio, and head production for another, after successfully re-cutting some of their films. I met people who optioned my scripts, produced my writing and published books about my experience with editing. It’s a great and creative profession and you meet many amazing people doing it. Had I known this earlier, editing would have been my career choice from the start!

Who are artists that inspire your work?

Too many to count, but I would definitely include some of the directors I worked with, such as Mike Mendez, Philippe Mora, Jeffrey Obrow, Stewart Raffill, Bob Rafelson, Alan Rudolph, Kurt Voss and Livi Zheng. And Jack Nicholson, who I spent weeks alone with in the editing room. Also, composers I’ve worked with, including Jerry Goldsmith, Maurice Jarre, Garry Schyman and Alan Silvestri. And filmmakers who I haven’t worked with but whose work has definitely inspired me – Wes Anderson, Danny Boyle, Sergei Eisenstein, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, David Lean, Ang Lee, Stanley Kubrick, Spike Lee, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Steve McQueen, Quentin Tarantino, Andre Tarkovsky, and others. There are artists who aren’t directly related to filmmaking yet also have an impact on an editor’s work. For me, the works of Thomas Mann, Lao Tzu, Rimbaud, Rilke, Dorothy L. Sayers, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Carl Jung, Zhang Ailing, Kate Millet, James George Frazer, Jean Paul Sartre, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, Mircea Eliade, Kandinsky, Banksy, Edward Hopper, and Marcel Duchamp and come to mind. As well as my students! And of course, other editors who I know or have worked with, Tom Walls, John Poll, Richard Pearson, Dody Dorn, Conrad Buff, Robert Brown, and Alan Baumgarten, to name a few.

You've experienced the switch from film editing to digital. Do you think the art of film editing is being lost?

The transition from analog editing to digital non-linear editing was a huge leap. But I embraced it. I was always into technology, built my own computers and became one of the first Avid editors. As much as I loved the physical quality of working with celluloid film, I never want to return to it. In many ways the move to digital has enhanced the art of film editing. With digital you have greater opportunities to experiment and try things in a non-destructive way. With film you only had one copy to work from and if you messed it up, well, you can imagine. Good for learning discipline, however! The control of a film’s pace and rhythm, the visual music, is the editor’s purview. It influences the emotional impact of the film. I discuss this at length in my editing book, THE HEALTHY EDIT: Creative Techniques for Perfecting Your Movie. In the digital era, we’ve seen wonderfully rich and innovative advances in this realm. Additionally, digital editing allows you to manipulate sound, color, visual effects in ways that were previously limited. And digital filmmaking is much more egalitarian. Anyone with talent and skill (and maybe a film school education!) can excel in it because it is more accessible and more portable than celluloid filmmaking. Previously, because film stock was so expensive, took up so much space, required expensive equipment that weighed nearly a ton (the KEM), it was confined to studios. Studios, sorry to say, were controlled by a privileged few, so the opportunities were highly limited. Today, the field is wide open.

How do you advise students to establish a director, producer, editor relationship, and workflow?

A spirit of collaboration and generosity is essential. One of the best aspects of film editing is the honor to spend weeks, months, sometimes years with highly creative filmmakers to craft a movie. In the end that film or television show will be better than each individual contribution would have made it. Generally, the cut starts with the editor and, in my experience, editors are afforded the opportunity to sit alone, putting the film together by themselves at the start. Then the collaboration with director and, later, the producer begins. Through this process two minds come to share one thought and along the way make wonderful and unexpected discoveries. And you bond. There are many directors I’ve worked with multiple times because you can’t help but become closer when sharing this experience.

As new technology emerges, what do you think will be the challenges for editors?

There will certainly be challenges, but there are also huge benefits. More and more, editing and post production influence the outcome of a film. The writer/director David Mamet said, “The humbling truth is that a film is made in the editing room.” And it’s true. New technologies mean that more and more decisions will be made in the editing room, including such traditionally production-oriented choices as shot size and angles. With ultra-high-resolution formats combined with various kinds of image-capture it’s possible for editor and director to shoot one set up and determine all the angles and shot sizes in the editing room. Additionally, where in the past the final print of a film was the responsibility of a film lab or post production house, editors are now able to color grade and output final versions of a film at exhibitable resolutions, particularly for lower budget films. Audio has also experienced huge advances to the point some software can now supply needed dialogue in the actor’s own voice without additional recording – you type in the desired word or sentence, the computer samples all the existing footage and constructs the new sentence in that actor’s voice. Certain ethical and legal issues will certainly need to be addressed. There are AI programs, such as those using IBM’s Watson, that can sample the dailies of a film and construct a trailer. The trick with longer narrative work is mimicking the emotion that comes from the heart of a human editor and, I expect, that’s still a long way off. Surprisingly, many experts predicted that hours spent in the editing room would decrease with digital technology, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case. There’s more to do and the work expands to fill the space. Thank goodness for unions that keep an eye on this. These are just a few of the amazing new technologies that are emerging in the editing room. Stay tuned for more!

As many productions went remote during Covid, do you think remote editing will continue for professionals?

Covid has definitely had a significant effect in helping us rethink approaches to work. Even before Covid many productions, were utilizing remote resources to deliver dailies, screen cuts, give notes, and even work collaboratively with others on the cut. This will continue, but now there is a heightened awareness that editors can work from almost anywhere and that the process can actually benefit from remote access. A recent feature I edited, just before Covid, I had edited from home since the crew was on location. It worked very smoothly. And when you need to go into the studio to screen a cut or collaborate it’s as easy as carrying a laptop or posting a project folder on the Cloud. The Cloud has changed everything. There’s that wonderful meme of an editor at his work station with the caption: Video Editor. Next to it is the identical photo of the editor at his work station, but with a different caption: Video Editor in Quarantine. 

What details can you tell us about your new book, PERFORM: Editing for the Screen?

PERFORM: Editing for the Screen is part of the new PERFORM series from Routledge/Taylor & Francis, the world’s leading academic publisher in the humanities. The book features diverse voices talking about their experiences and struggles in building a career in film editing. Unlike many of Routledge’s books under their Focal Press imprint, which deal with aesthetic topics (including my other upcoming book, THE FINAL REWRITE), this book deals with the business of filmmaking.  It includes contributions from USC School of Cinematic Arts faculty as well as others in the film industry. My recent book, THE HEALTHY EDIT, benefited greatly from smart, insightful interviews with such accomplished faculty as Midge Costin, Michael Fink, Stephen Flick, Nancy Forner, Bruce Green, Don Hall and others.

John Rosenberg's book, The Healthy Edit

Series like Wanda Vision are shooting with 47 lenses. As content becomes more advanced, what advice do you have for future editors?

Technology is one of the driving forces of this business. Editing is a highly technical as well as a deeply creative profession. Learn the technology.  Embrace the technology. It’s fun and it will open new opportunity.