Film Editor James Haygood on 30-Second Stories
A Career in Spots, Music Videos, and Fincher Features
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JAMES HAYGOOD: Yeah. I was working at a place up in San Francisco called One Pass Video. I had started out doing music and photography going through college. I had always been interested in music, and so I wanted to work on music videos. I had been at the company long enough that when a music project came in, I had a good shot at doing it. When David was doing his first video, he came in to do the post-production and we got stuck together. It was fortuitous for me-and, hopefully, for him, too. We hit it off and kept working together.
What was that first video?
I don’t know if I’m authorized to talk about it. [Laughs.] It was a Rick Springfield video. It was one of those videos that nobody has on their reel anymore. We were both living in the San Francisco area at the time, and when his career started to go he came down here to L.A., and I came about a year later.
You said you were interested in music and music video already. Is there a relationship between music and editing?
There are different kinds of storytelling, but stories have beginnings and middles and ends. And music has a structure that works on those same ideas, whether it follows them or breaks them – however you deal with rules at any point in the creative process. Certainly when I talk to younger people coming up, I always ask, “Do you play music?” It’s a good thing to know.
Just editorially, you can tell somebody who understands music and somebody who doesn’t. Chopping out reasonable amounts, making music fit a sequence by doing logical things to it – some people know that stuff and some people don’t. In a technical sense it’s really useful, whether you have musical training or not, to have a musical sensibility.
Are there rules you follow when cutting music, or is it an instinctive thing?
Certainly western music is a mathematical thing. Whatever the time signature is – you can’t just take one second out of a musical phrase. You have to take out the full phrase. If you take out half of a phrase you’re going to do weird things. There’s a mathematical logic to music, and you have to understand how that works to make choices that are musical. It can be instinctual, but ultimately there’s a technical reason.
Do you feel that working in shortform music videos impacted the way you felt about narrative feature films?
Any editing experience you get is going to help you as you move into these other forms. It’s not that they are completely exclusive. Just knowing how to operate the equipment is important. But they’re different at the same time. The first thing on a movie is you’re getting in scenes. You’re working in smaller blocks. It’s not like you’re taking the whole thing on at once. So at least those are manageable units. You can put a scene together that’s one minute or two minutes long and deal with the film in pieces. The surprise comes when you start assembling those together and see how they interact as this bigger, 90-minute thing. The scenes that come before are still resonating with you and coloring the way you see that scene. It’s not just a standalone deal. It’s affected by everything else that’s happened. That’s the new thing you have to understand as you move into those longer forms – how do those things work together, and how much story do you need to tell for people to understand? At what point are you undertelling or overtelling? That’s an ongoing learning experience, and every project is different. You have a script that everyone has agreed on, but you start to find the unintended consequences.
With the sheer amount of footage that can be shot for a 30-second or 60-second spot, it seems like that’s a highly concentrated version of making a feature film.
It depends on who the director of the feature is. Some of those can have massive amounts of footage too. You generally have a higher ratio on a commercial, but not always.
Is there a lot of narrative involved in spots?
Not so much. Just 30 seconds. You actually have, maybe, 25. It’s a really brief form. It’s about different things. The requirements of a commercial are different. It’s a piece that comes in the midst of all this other programming, and it needs to stand out and be intelligible and communicate advertising specifics – and be interesting enough that people will even pay attention. With TiVo, nobody’s sure where commercials are going to end up. You certainly have to make them interesting, or nobody’s going to watch. That’s good in a creative sense, but it still has to function as a piece of advertising.
That’s the challenge. For the amount of story the client would like, you could tell it clearly in 35 or 40 seconds. But you have to do it in 30. So, what are the most important things? How streamlined can you make it before it becomes an unintelligible mess? You’re always faced with that: how do we shoehorn all of that stuff in there and keep it elegant? That’s the hard part. Ultimately the client is going to want a good shot of the nav system, or whatever. You have to balance all of that somehow and achieve all those goals.
I was looking at this recent Land Rover spot you cut, and – I don’t how to explain it, but the cuts aren’t happening where you expect them. It’s a lyrical, unexpected pace. I noticed that in some of your feature work, too.
A lot of times, necessity is the mother of invention. You start out with a creative idea. And then you’re faced with these restrictions. “We’ve got to get all eight of these shots in.” The Range Rover spot is supposed to be about anticipation and waiting for something to happen. But when you’ve got a 30-second spot, you can’t wait too long for anything to happen. You have to hope that the shots communicate enough for you that you don’t have to leave them up too long. A lot of the time you’re forced into certain rhythms. “What is the minimum amount of time we can have this shot up there and have it make sense?” You’re retro-fitting style onto practical necessities. In commercials that happens because time is a fixed, immovable boundary.
In features, it’s more aesthetic. You can’t just let things hang forever or it’s going to become too Ã¢Â€Â¦ European. [Laughs.] That may push you in certain directions, too, but in commercials it’s so specific. You’re trying to maintain a creative idea given the realities of a 30-second time frame. Hopefully you can somehow do what you have to do and make it look like what you meant to do. It’s tough, because you always wish you had that extra five seconds.
Over your career, has new editing technology changed what you do and how you do it in significant ways?
I remember when I was coming up, commercials were still cut on film. The top guys were film editors. And I had no experience in film at all. I was part of this new generation of people who came up on videotape. Once the nonlinear systems came in, there was no reason to cut film. We were doing music videos, and that was less of an issue because you were working on a fixed-length track. You didn’t rely on things that were weaknesses of videotape-based editing. The smarter editors who saw what was happening and learned how to work on videotape made the jump as Avid came on, along with Montage and the CMX 6000. Finally they broke that nonlinear barrier, which was such a barrier to videotape.
I saw what happened when people made themselves obsolete by sticking to old technology. I saw that in a visceral way, so I knew that you need to keep up. At the same time, what we do is storytelling. I was just out in the desert with my family over the past week and we didn’t have any TV or phone. You’re sitting around the fire, telling stories and looking at stars. People have been telling stories for a long time, and that hasn’t changed. There are new tools that you use to do it. I spent the last year working on Final Cut on a feature with Spike Jonze. I knew that I didn’t want to be, “No, I like Avid. I don’t want to learn this new thing.” I didn’t want that limitation.
So I worked on [Final Cut]. I didn’t particularly like it. As an editor, in terms of the actual things an editor does, Avid is a better designed system. Final Cut has the feel of a consumer system that’s been made to do all these things. I just find Avid to be more elegant as an editor.
There’s almost a religious war on this subject.
Yeah. Avid’s been stupid in a lot of ways over the years, and in certain ways Apple was very smart. Avid tried to cling to the high end, but underneath there was this gathering storm of kids that learned Final Cut. Avid has seen what’s happened, and they’re trying to recover a bit. It doesn’t matter if it’s the better system if everyone knows the other one, and is used to its limitations.
At the same time, I see Final Cut making some of the same mistakes. While I was working on this movie, they were telling us about these big servers, and all these broadcast applications, and I was saying, “But your editing interface has issues.” It’s the basic thing this machine is supposed to do, and it has some stupid handicaps. Why don’t you address that? It’s the same thing Avid did, where they started chasing these large markets in broadcast. They think they can make more money selling to television stations. I’ve seen this before. They’re not paying attention. Maybe we don’t matter that much to their economic model, but it’s frustrating. Take a step back from all these flashy applications and enhancements, go back to square one, and make this editor work right. That would make me happy.
Make it better in terms of the interface, and the features you need to work quickly?
Yeah. How does the timeline work? How musical is the editing process? With Avid, you can edit in a very musical way. It’s got a flow to it. You can see what you’re doing at the same time you’re working on the sound. It’s organic, because they have a lot of years working from the ground up and responding to what people wanted. With Final Cut, it was, “Here, you can edit your home movies on your Mac.” And then they moved into this other thing and never really went back and made some of these things work. It’s trying to help you and not let you make mistakes. But I’m a professional. I can take care of myself.
At the same time, now that I’m back on Avid, there are a couple of features I’d like to bring back from Final Cut. Not very much, all in all. You can turn off individual clips, sound or picture, and just make them invisible. In Avid, you have to turn off that entire track. But I love being able to do that. You can stack up a bunch of alternate takes of something and just turn them off. They can float around and be out of sync. It doesn’t matter. But a month later you can come back and go, “I think I remember this other shot.” And you turn that stuff on, and there it is. I would love to have that feature, so I created an effect in Avid that makes the picture transparent. You drag it on and turn the effect on, but it’s not as nice as how Final Cut works. I wish I could get all these engineers together and make the one, killer system. But it doesn’t work that way.
Another thing people say about Final Cut is it has helped subvert the traditional model where, if you wanted to be a film editor, you served a long apprenticeship as an assistant editor where you learned the nuts and bolts behind very complex technology. Given your background, I don’t know if you went through that.
No. I worked as a tape operator for years, and then worked as an online editor, and then as an offline editor. There was a sense of apprenticeship in that. But in that era, music-video guys got to move with the director horizontally into other forms. The first movie David did, I didn’t do because I didn’t have any resumà© and neither did he. He had to do a couple of features first. On The Game he was able to pick his own crews and make some unorthodox choices because he had grossed $100 million at the box office. So it was a lucky time in terms of not having to take that route into movies.
But it’s kind of a shame, too. An assistant editor on a feature used to be in the room while the editor was cutting. They were watching what was happening, managing all the trims and doing all the physical library work that was involved in editing at that time. Now, they’re off in another room with three other assistants on Avids, so they’re not witnessing the process. Seeing the steps that got you from A to Z is different from just seeing Z. How are these guys ever going to get to be editors if they’re just managing a database all the time? But at the same time, they are sitting on a system, and it’s no skin off anyone’s nose if they want to do some editing on the weekends. They’ve lost one element of access, but they’ve gained in that the technology isn’t keeping them from learning how to edit. In fact, it’s helping.
Now you have to make more of an effort to hand things off and give the assistants a chance to show what they can go. Otherwise they get more isolated from the process even though they’re just on the other side of a wall. Sometimes you do that, and it’s like, “Wow, they did a good job.” And other times it’s like, “Well, I won’t do that again.” But you have to be ready when that shot comes. You have to do whatever you can do to build up your experience. If someone hands something to you, they’re not going to do it over and over again. They’re going to do it once or twice, and if it doesn’t help them, that opportunity will pass. It’s all about being prepared when opportunity knocks.
Can you talk a little bit more about Where the Wild Things Are?
I just spent the last year on it. It is an amazing project. Like all of Spike’s projects, there’s a complicated birthing process. But it’s a real special, one-of-a-kind thing. That was really fun, and it’s still going. I may go back for a couple months. They’ve gone on hiatus to shoot a couple things and write some stuff, so post-production took a break. I really look forward to seeing how that all comes together. We worked in HD, so whatever movie I do next, I think it’s going to be edited in HD. We’ll have to see where Avid’s HD system is at that point. We were on Final Cut 5, working in 720p HD. Once you get into it, there’s no turning back from that. I know there are shows working with Avid’s HD codec [DNxHD] that have been a little difficult, but hopefully by the time my next film comes along the bugs will be worked out.
What did the cutting room look like? I know some cutting rooms now have the capability to project HD, as well as to look at it on a plasma screen.
I just had the regular two-monitor set up on the computer, plus a plasma screen to give Spike and myself to have something bigger to look at. On Panic Room we had a projection room set up with a 10-foot screen, and I just found there was a lot of eyestrain in going from your computer monitors up to a big screen 12 feet away and back to your monitors. I found that jumping back and forth in focus exhausting. I prefer to save the big-screen experience for a little bit. I’ll work on something for a week or so, then take a look at it on the big screen and get a fresh eye on it. It’s nice to have something to look at on a larger scale, but on a day-to-day basis it’s just the regular monitors.
Why did you like working in HD?
You have a better idea. On certain material there’s surprises. You can see what somebody’s eyes are doing, or subtleties of expression that kind of get lost in the compression. Usually you would catch that in various screenings as you go along, but working in HD the gauze is peeled away a little bit.
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Editor: James Haygood
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